Category Archives: Media

Ha Ha, Only Serious

I’ve lost track of how many election-related posts I’ve started, stalled, and scrapped.  I try to say something significant, interesting, or relevant, but what can even be said?  What can even be done?  Every time I think I’ve given some tidy summation of the absurdity, something even more implausible happens.  But there’s only days to go before the elections, so no matter how incoherent a thesis I may have, no matter how sprawling and meandering my thoughts may be, this is – hopefully – my last chance to get any of them out there, so I might as well dump them all, stream-of-conscious, and have done with it.  Goodness knows it’s not like my observations have any significance, so I’m not even sure why I’ve tried to make anything clear or conclusive this whole time.  It’s not as if reality itself makes sense anymore, after all.

This lack of sense is, really, the core of it all.  Things that seemed like jokes at first have become ha-ha-only-serious. Donald Trump is running for president? Haha, he’ll drop out in a week.  Haha, okay, a month.  Haha, can you believe he said Mexico is “sending their rapists?”  He’s done for sure, now!  A few months and an official nomination later, haha, can you believe he joked about how his wealth and fame can even let him get away with sexual abuse?  He’s done for sure, now!

Repeat ad nauseam, ad absurdum.

Donald Trump says ridiculous things.  He calls for violence against protesters, he insults women based on their appearance as if that’s relevant to their abilities, he has advocated barring all Muslims from entering the United States.

But he’s just being funny, right? It’s hyperbole.  Trump doesn’t actually want anybody to attack anybody for protesting, and he doesn’t really think that our history of violently attacking protesters was better – that people should be punched in the face and sent out on stretchers. Right?  He just said so as a joke.

 

But here’s the thing.  If he’s serious, then that’s an unforgivable call to violence, and if he’s joking, that’s unforgivably devoid of empathy or awareness.

I see three options, if he or his supporters ever walk back a derogatory or violent statement by saying it was a joke:

1) Trump knows exactly what historical horrors he’s evoking when he “jokes” about inciting violence against protesters or “jokes” groping the genitals of unconsenting women, and he’s making these comments to demonstrate just how little he cares about anybody who’d stand in opposition to him.  A similar “joke” would be going up to a woman whose son was just stillborn and telling her all the dead baby jokes he can think of. “What, it’s just a joke! I’m not saying YOUR dead baby, or that there should be dead babies, I love babies! YOU’RE a baby! If you weren’t so sensitive, maybe, I’m just sayin’, maybe your baby wouldn’t have died, how about that? Personal responsibility.”

2) Trump has almost no sociopolitical or historical insight, and he’s making one of those babbling toddler jokes that prove he doesn’t understand how jokes work, or how language works, or how logic works. “Why… why is… why did the dinosaur… eat… eat a shoe? Because he wanted to be race cars! Hahahaha!” His supporters, like a toddler’s parents, see everything this half-formed mind produces as brilliant, unique, innovative, and proof that the child is a genius who’s going to grow up to be president someday.

3) It’s some kind of elaborate metajoke where the real joke is on whomever laughs. It’s “No soap, radio” on the national stage.

 

I could probably go into a whole exploratory tangent that tried to figure out how ethics intersect with humor.  From Mel Brooks’ quote that “Tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die” to the old saw that “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” there’s an understanding that comedy often involves something Wrong or Terrible happening, usually to somebody other than you.  There’s been tension, or risk, or sheer juxtaposition, and laughter serves to acknowledge that something unexpected and juxtaposed just happened, but to also acknowledge (or assert?) that everything’s safe.  There’s a good reason America’s Funniest Home Videos always had the canned audience laughter – without it, even with the goofy sound effects and the stupid voiceovers, there would’ve been uncertainty, discomfort, or even fear.

How soon is “too soon?” What things are too serious and important to joke about?  What responsibility does the teller of a joke have for the feelings it evokes in people?  Can they take credit for the mirth but wave off the people who are infuriated, insulted, or hurt?  What responsibility does the listener of a joke have for the feelings that arise in them, or that they choose to express?  These things vary intensely, depending on content, context, culture, and the individuals in question.

He doesn’t have to be a stuffy, humorless, serious politician, because he’s Not A Politician. And because he’s Not A Politician, he doesn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else has.  That very refusal to follow convention becomes a selling point. If you don’t like the status quo, you’re more likely to favor anyone who flouts it.

 

The trickster figure is important in almost every culture.  It’s necessary to have someone who shakes the halls of power, who points out that the Emperor has no clothes, who reminds everyone that social conventions are largely constructed things with only the clout we’ve collectively agreed to give them, and that the more stiff and serious an institution tries to be, the more absurd it becomes. A trickster’s power comes from being able to confuse, stymie, and subvert. It’s the power of liquefaction, like an earthquake turning solid ground to mud.

But can the trickster still serve that purpose if the he attains power?  Can he – or would he – still shake the halls of power if he was living in them?  Would he point out his own lack of clothes?  Would he allow the defiance of conventions to continue?  Or, on ascension, would those very same acts of rebellion become strictly forbidden?  After all, he’s The Person Who Can Change Things, and he’s in the place of power, and he’s Making America Great Again. No further mockery, satire, protest, or complaint would be necessary.

A trickster’s influence comes from being able to do the unexpected, the unpredictable, and even the unthinkable. But a leader’s influence often comes from the opposite.  Because what followers want most often is for today to be more or less like yesterday.  Hopefully better, but generally the same.  Isn’t that what people are asking for when they say “Make America Great Again?” They’ve seen stagnant wages, outsourcing, corruption, and abuse, they’ve seen a lot of Todays that are a lot worse than the Yesterdays they remember, and they just want a stable world again.  They miss being able to have a 40-year career in the same company, with a living wage, cost of living increases every year or two, decent benefits, and a retirement plan. Instead, loyal employees are being coerced into early retirement so that some know-nothing graduate can do their job as an unpaid intern. If they’re lucky, they can come back as “independent contractors” for wages that may or may not make up for the outrageous self-employment taxes. Is this something that a trickster could secure, though?

When someone’s entire public persona seems to rely on saying whatever’s attention-getting at the time, on being prepared to dismiss everything as a joke, on being prepared to rescind every deal, to renege on every promise, to deny every fact – can they actually lead?  Can they be followed?

 

Does it even matter if they deny facts, though?

My concern is that facts don’t matter anymore.  I wish they did, but even if someone is shown objective and factual evidence that their belief is wrong, they only believe it even more fiercely. Forget any attempts to argue that Trump’s polemics show him to be a demagogue, a proto-fascist, a narcissist, a sex offender, a misogynist, a bigot, a tax cheat, a potential nuclear bomber / war criminal, or anything else one might hypothetically suggest, based on the man’s own statements: he, and Pence, and his supporters, would all gladly reply NOT that Trump was misunderstood, but that he had never actually said the thing he was recorded saying. Even if I were trying to explain things as some expert in political science, it wouldn’t help, because that’s not how this game is being played. To paraphrase something I’ve read in various forms, trying to counter this campaign rationally is like trying to play chess with a pigeon: no matter how good you are and how well you play, the pigeon is just going to knock down the pieces at random, take a crap on the board, and strut about as if it’s won.

So that’s it. Nobody can be convinced, no minds can be changed, truth squidges out from beneath the boottreads of Truthiness, and I might as well fight absurdity with absurdity:

 
Donald Trump is a tulpa. An egregore. An entity willed into existence by force of the American peoples’ beliefs. A corporeal thoughtform of the American Fever Dream.

 

Is it any less ridiculous than some other presumably-joking allegations?  Like the one that says he was paid by Hillary Clinton to throw the election (though, ala The Producers, it’s backfiring?)  Or the one that says he’s illiterate? Or the one that says he’s Andy Kaufman in disguise?  Does it even matter anymore? This all began with Truthiness, so why not take it all the way and assert, even more fully, that the reality of the situation is, and only is, what people have believed it into being.

After all, look at how involved he was in the WWF, back in the day.  It’s not so hard to imagine that Donald Trump is still a larger-than-life character, one that he’s completely committed to portraying, never breaking kayfabe in public.  That’s a fun argument, but why not go even farther and claim that this character isn’t even HIS character, that there IS no “real Donald Trump” behind the facade, and that the reason Donald Trump seems like an living caricature of The Sleazy Fat Cat Billionaire is because that’s precisely what he is.  He’s not an actual person, he’s a psychically-generated avatar of Big Business, of The Rich, of Success, of Capitalism, of Materialism.  His focus on gaudy opulence is glamour in both the conventional and the occult senses of the term.

However, those who’ve believed him into being – a group that includes both his adherents and his opponents – do not, as a whole, know enough about business, politics, wealth, or success to know what to imagine in the first place, so there are all sorts of little flaws in the model.

 

First of all, there’s the name. It’s a little on the nose, wouldn’t you say?  “Trump,” in English, derives from “triumph,” and is most used in reference to card games where a card of a certain suit can, regardless of the broader rules, automatically outrank all others.  In other words, a trump card doesn’t just have artificially- and arbitrarily-increased importance and success, it has a certain inbuilt privilege, a silver spoon in its mouth.  Fitting for an entity that believes he should win because he is A Winner, and because everyone else is a loser, because nobody else is him.

However, “trump” has another meaning of “to fabricate, devise, or deceive,” as in “trumped-up allegations.”  That meaning derives more from the Old French tromper, meaning “to blow a trumpet.” As the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen would blow horns to try to attract attention – and to attract a new mark to scam.  Given the entity’s self-absorption, history of duplicitous business practices, and accusations of outright fraud (as in Trump University,) both these connotations are apt, as well.

As for Donald, the Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that it ultimately comes from the Proto-Celtic *Dubno-valos – meaning “world-mighty, ruler of the world.”  I mean, come on now.  A self-important, bloviating huckster who’s focused on winning, and is trying to become the leader of the free world, is actually named “World-Ruler, Fabricated, Triumphant, Deceitful, and Loud?”  Even Dickens and Rowling are more subtle about the names of their characters!

 

And look at the ego.  You can’t NOT look at the ego, because there’s nothing else to him.  Armchair psychiatrists love to point out the failures of empathy and the signs of narcissism. He focuses on his will and his will alone, asserting that he and he alone can fulfill the public’s wishes and “Make America Great Again,” despite a complete lack of experience and understanding.  He doesn’t thank, he doesn’t regret, he doesn’t mourn, he doesn’t apologize. He can’t truly understand or feel empathy for any other perspective but his own, because he’s been created a He simply wants whatever he wants and pursues it, regardless of anyone else’s needs, regardless of what anything means.

How can someone so self-centered be seen as someone who’d faithfully serve an entire country?   This might seem baffling, but if he’s perceived instead AS a manifested force of will, then there’s no conflict at all.  His is the will of the people, because HE is the will of the people.  They wished him into being, and into relevance, and he will stay relevant for as long as that belief-in-his-relevance is sustained.

Look, too, at the time a veteran gave him his Purple Heart, and Trump responded with “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.” That statement strongly implies that he wanted the award for its prestige alone, since that award is only granted to people who’ve been injured or killed in action, circumstances which inherently entail bravery, effort, and sacrifice.  In short, he wanted to get the Purple Heart, not to earn the Purple Heart, and so long as he has one, he appears to see the difference as immaterial.  Why?  Because he, being the American Fever Dream, IS getting-without-earning, being-without-meaning.  He cannot be otherwise, and he knows he is the most important, valuable, and flawless entity that exists, so he therefore can’t care about – or even conceive of – a meaningful difference between Getting and Earning.

 

And then there’s the complete lack of clear plans or policies.  The people who’ve created him don’t know what a good policy would be, so neither does he.  But people know what they want to feel.  They want to feel safe, they want to feel exceptional, they want to feel powerful, they want to feel free.  So all Trump needs to do is make noises that perpetuate those feelings, and it keeps the feedback loop going. There doesn’t need to be any truth, any possibility, any reality to the things he says or promises – it just needs to be believed. No matter how unbelievable it seems, it just needs to be enough to resonate, because belief alone is what sustains his pseudo-existence. There may never have been so shameless a demagogue.  But, when it is what The American People want to hear, clearly it is reflective of democracy.

 

Why does Trump speak so poorly, with such mangled sentence structures and such elementary words?  Because that’s the vocabulary level of the people who’ve believed him into being, and because sometimes his mishmash of programming causes him to emit a disjointed string of stock phrases that his believers like to hear.

 

Other more obvious flaws are in the ill-shaped physical form that’s been manifested for him. Trump wears suits, because businessmen wear suits.  But his suits are just as baggy as any suit an average guy wears off the rack, because the average American doesn’t know enough about good tailoring to imagine it any better.

This also explains the hair: there’s just enough conflict between whether he should be the stereotypical balding boss or the suavely-coiffed playboy to create a strange middle-ground: Uncanny Valley transplants and a combover with more architectural innovation than any of his buildings.

As for the tan, the collective consciousness still associates paleness with sickness – but recognizes that genuine tanning only happens if someone spends a lot of time in the sun (which is unlikely for a businessman like Trump, who is imagined as either working very hard in NYC boardrooms.)  Therefore, to maintain that veneer of youth and accomplishment and vigor, he’s been manifested with an overdone spray tan and/or fell-asleep-on-the-tanning-bed look, replete with pale goggle-spots around the eyes.

 

Why, if Donald Trump is an egregore, has he appeared to age, then? Two interlocking reasons.  The first is that he’s a product of his time – the same 80s-era Yuppie zeitgeist that spawned the ideas of Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman, the one fueled by Robin Leach and Reaganomics, Madonna and Miami Vice, Dynasty and Dallas.   The second is because his current power relies on the idea that today’s world isn’t similar enough to the world of the 80s anymore – but that it could be or should be.  Time needs to have passed, and it needs to have passed for Trump, too. He has to be advocating a return of the 80s, not asserting that nothing has changed.

Furthermore, although he’s meant to seem larger-than-life, Trump also needs to appear “real.”  He has to epitomize the American Dream of ascending to wealth and success through hard work and determination – despite that he did no such thing, started off with “a small loan of a million dollars” from his father, and would’ve been more successful if he’d invested all his money and done nothing than if he’d gone through with all his ultimately-failed business ventures.

The result is a collection of physical features which are all meant well, and are all intended to be better than the alternatives of age, balding, relative pallor, etc. – but which add up to the exaggerated caricature we see, a form that reflects its believers’ desperate attempts to reconcile reality and desire – a form that reflects the cognitive dissonance that has brought him into being.

 

Why the dissonance?  Why not make him square-jawed and clean-cut?  It’s because he’s meant to reflect the same dissonance we feel as Americans.  We grow up inculcated with the American Dream, and it feels un-American, undemocratic, anti-capitalist, and almost obscene to deny it: to deny that everyone can get everything they want if they work hard, and any failure to have what you want means only a fault in you and your work effort, not in anything systematic.  Nevermind that the system itself has been set up so that only “the right people” succeed in the first place, so that underdog stories are rare, and so that – once again – things stay mostly the same for as many people as possible.

Unfortunately, whether it’s because of greed, ambition, an erosion of protections, public apathy and cynicism, or the sheer fact that there won’t be any consequences and there’s no need to put up the pretenses anymore, income inequality is worsening and the very wealthiest people are becoming exponentially more wealthy than everyone else put together.  Perhaps, even though these same sorts of issues preceded the Great Depression, that doesn’t matter now – because “the right people” weren’t affected by the first Great Depression, so why should this generation’s elite care if there’s another one?  Have they ever not made their success at the expense of their inferiors? Why should they shy away from doing so more blatantly?  It’s not as if the masses can do anything to change it, anyway.

Besides, thanks to that American Dream, we – to quote that old adage – think of ourselves as temporarily-embarrassed billionaires.  We can be rich and successful, we should be rich and successful, and we WILL be rich and successful – we just need to try harder.  So whenever any initiative would threaten to increase taxes on the people who can most afford it, we rankle, because that could be us someday.  And if we’re getting our well-deserved rewards for being Good Americans, working hard, and achieving the dream, why should we have to give anything up to those “takers?”  They say some of them don’t even pay taxes; how useless is that?

 

Make no mistake, it’s hard for the white, working-class schmos of America.  Jobs are being outsourced, and nobody seems to be up in arms.  It’s suddenly becoming damn near mandatory to send your kids to college, but tuition is skyrocketing and there’s less and less out there to help.   Lobbyists and special interest groups seem to get all the attention, but your industry isn’t big enough or influential enough to sway anyone toward helping you.  Yet it seems like other groups are getting no end of public sympathy and support.

A lot of his supporters see patience, compromise, and diplomacy as weaknesses and hurdles, not as integral parts of any process.  They’ve lived whole lives being told never to give up, never to back down, never to show vulnerability, never to cry. When shit goes bad – and it always does – they don’t have the money or the resources to just buy a new thing.  They’ve got to make do with what they’ve got, use the ingenuity at their disposal, and try to come up with something unconventional that does the trick.  Or they use something they heard at their Granny’s knee, and that she heard from her Granny before her.

And what do they get?  Jokes about uneducated, inbred hillbillies.  Jokes about flyover states. Jokes about outhouses from the same people who advocate for clean water in Bangladesh. Jokes about trailer homes from the same people who advocate for Habitat for Humanity. Jokes about bad teeth and diabetes from the same people who see poor dental care and nutrition as absolute tragedies when they happen to someone on the other side of the planet.  Jokes from the people who are so wealthy, so safe, and so privileged that they can afford to throw away money on feel-good bullshit – everything from kale to quinoa, yoga to pilates, “spirituality” to The Secret – and who act as if they and the world around them are actually better off because of their mindfulness and positivity.

 

So there’s an appeal in the demagogue, in someone like Trump or Sanders who wants radical change. When “The System” itself is corrupt, then playing by the rules of that system can surely only foster further corruption.

But the thing about fascist demagogues is, they don’t care about truth or ethics or legality, just about results.  They don’t care about the rule of law.  The people who want one in office want him there explicitly because he doesn’t care about the rule of law. But instead of a slow and steady change – instead of electing officials at the local level who can affect things close to home, they’d rather have one person knock everything down from the top so it could all be restarted in one great go. Suddenly, decades of experience become a liability. They don’t want a stable status quo, they don’t want business as usual, they don’t want stability, they want things to change, even if it’s for the worse for a while, because that’s what it seems like it would take to make an improvement. They don’t want checks and balances, they want him to make all the decisions, because he’s a winner, everyone else is a loser, and he’ll make America great again.  And he can be as harsh as he wants in the process, because everyone he’s disrespecting and alienating deserves to be disrespected and alienated, because they’re the weird fringes of America – and he’s the only person who’s even paying lip service to Real America, as embodied by the rural blue-collar worker.

We’ve come to accept that politicians are full of bluster and bullshit.  So much so that, when we encounter someone whose lies aren’t just stretches of the truth, or lies by omission, or lies by exaggeration, but are wholesale fabrications – or complete denials of ever having said things, despite video evidence or his own prior statements – he can still be embraced because “at least he’s not a politician.”  So many promises have gone unfulfilled for so long that, now, someone can promise to create national databases tracking religious minorities, or to keep them from entering the country, or can threaten to deport legal citizens – and have this handwaved away because “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to his base.” He can brag about sexually assaulting women, and have this handwaved away because “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to his friends.” That roughness and crudeness and lack of experience become virtues. And, furthermore, the sorts of people who maintain racist, sexist, bigoted beliefs get the reassurance that such things really are normal and reasonable.  He can joke about imprisoning someone who, after many thorough investigations, was not found to have broken any laws – but “It’s not like he’d actually do that; he’s just trying to appeal to Republicans.”

 

It’s been a fact forever that politicians lie. They tell lies to get votes. They tell lies to get campaign financing. They tell lies for strategic purposes, because revealing the truth would be much more destabilizing. Diplomacy is just a lie with a doily on it.

But we’re surrounded by so many kinds of lies now. We’ve grown up with mass media, so we’re used to inaccurate representations of reality.  We’re used to reality shows where everything is actually scripted; nobody’s surprised or horrified anymore to learn that they’re fake.

Amid those shows, we’re used to commercials where every product is the best, the greatest, the most important, the most significant. We’re swimming in superlatives.

If we think we’re avoiding entertainment and picking up “real news,” we’re used to sharply-polarized media with a 24/7 news cycle that wrings every last possible plausibility from the most popular, ratings-grabbing story – media that attempts to create stories about outrage and scandal even where none exist. There’s no “fairness doctrine” anymore, so being Fair And Balanced can be the equivalent of having a NASA scientist on to talk about the latest mission, split-screened with a literal flat-earther.

We’re used to a gatekeeperless Internet where anyone can say anything and have equal chance of being heard – which is wonderful, but which helps us forget that not anyone can say anything and have equal chance of being correct.  We’re used to bite-sized bullshit in Facebook posts, we’re used to “Like and share if you agree,” we’re used to emails that say Bill Gates will share his millions if you pass along this email; we’re used to seeing people play along with them because “It can’t hurt.” We’re used to Internet comments full of random insults and invective based on no facts, just boredom and the desire to cause a stir.

We’re used to sarcasm and satire.

And even if you think that media rots your brain and education is more important, we’re used to teaching for the test, even when that doesn’t help anyone retain that knowledge or apply it.  Even science is marred by biases and the replicability crisis.

As long as things can seem to be the case in some measurable way – even if you’re ultimately measuring something else, and poorly – it can be treated as reality.

Informing is not as important anymore as appealing to the pre-existing beliefs and, through obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lies, making them look more like the truth.   And perhaps, on our end as receivers, there’s just so much to parse all the time that we can’t help but fizzle out at some point and begin accepting things at face value. Perhaps, biologically, we just can’t process all the information we take in with as much critical thought as would be necessary to truly understand and to more safely navigate our way in the world.  (Assuming we’re so lucky as to have learned how to think critically about information in the first place.)

For all these reasons and a bunch of others that I’m surely not even thinking of right now, the media landscape has become reality-proof. Giant headlines and chyrons can proclaim certain ideas – while the inevitable retractions, if they come at all, are hidden away.  One person’s complaint can be spun into outrage, creating its own backlash of outrage.  The very idea of “breaking news” has been broken, because that label will get slapped on the most pointless and arbitrary non-events, in the hopes that someone will stop and pay attention, and people paying attention is more important than people actually learning anything.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates all of this better than Fig. 1, a Buzzfeed listicle of absurd breaking news stories.

This is as close as we come to media literacy.

I wonder whether the combination of ratings-driven media, the lack of gatekeepers and the accessibility of alternate sources of information, and the general ethos of postmodernism are all working together to keep people outraged, fearful, confused, and disparate, each with such drastically-different beliefs about reality that communication is impossible. The Overton window might not even explain it anymore: it’s not just moving, it’s undergoing mitosis.  I wonder if there’s not enough consensus left to describe one window with fringed ends, but whether some peoples’ Unthinkables have become others’ Sensibles, whether that’s the legalization of gay marriage or the idea of barring all Muslims from entering the country.

I can’t find anything as clear and solid as a study – and, believe me, I’m aware of the irony in referring to anecdotal “evidence” – but it seems to me that, even as sarcasm and satire grow more prevalent, the average person’s ability to recognize them as such is dwindling. I knew college students who’d never heard the word “parody” before. I saw 50-something adults believe that Stephen Colbert was being sincere on The Colbert Report.  I’ve seen people not only be unable to take a joke, but unable to recognize them as jokes.  And I’ve seen the rise of antihumor, cringe humor, trolling, and other such modes where the humor comes not from what’s said, but from the disappointment, confusion,

So I have an utterly unfounded pet theory that the ability to detect sarcasm and satire might have correlations with political leanings, in that “liberals” might be more willing to perceive additional layers of interpretation in a statement whereas “conservatives” might be more willing to take things at face value.  The downsides of this being that “conservatives” might fail to recognize when something is a joke, sarcasm, a lie, a scam, etc – and that “liberals” might create a whole new unintended meaning through their interpretation and erroneously ascribe that to the author’s intent.  The fringes on both sides have similarities, though – believing in conspiracies based on bad information that they value over “mainstream” news, which they believe cannot be trusted.

 

But the point of this seeming digression is that there is an eroding consensus about reality itself now.  Not just in distinguishing sarcasm from sincerity, satire from assertion, joke from advocation, but even fact from opinion.  This entire election cycle – this entire year – has felt like a coma dream.  I have heard, in full sincerity and from multiple media outlets, outlandish phrases I never thought I would hear.  Phrases like “Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump,” “the late David Bowie,” “Swedish Fish Oreos,” and “World Series Champions the Chicago Cubs.”  And while, yes, I have long loved the idea of subjective reality, and while I believe that we have some ability to influence our perceptions of reality, and while I also believe that there is an extent to which our perception of something as reality can help us behave and believe as if it were reality, and while I ultimately also believe that this sort of subjunctive-case reality helps enable us to, through actual words and deeds, create those conditions in objective reality – a set of beliefs some people sum up as “magic(k added for supplementary potassium,) my worst nightmares are also those where my genuine beliefs and truths, like that the sky is blue, our planet is called Earth, and there are four lights – are treated like insane ramblings and I’m ignored, mocked, or put away.

I’m not arguing here that reality is subjective and that any failure of reality to reflect my subjective preferences is therefore Bad, and people need to learn better.  I’m arguing that, whether you try to explain or understand the world through fact or fantasy, science or religion or magic, myth or metaphor or mechanism, you take on some responsibility.   That the people who say things have some responsibility to avoid misleading others, but the people who perceive things have some responsibility to think critically and avoid being misled, and that it works best if we’re all aware of how constructed our worldviews are and do a little more to keep our assumptions in check.

 

In some small way on Tuesday, Americans get to exert their will on reality.  The voting process has undeniably many problems – the electoral college, first-past-the-post, the fact it’s on a Tuesday, the long lines.  And, yes, one could try to argue that it doesn’t matter, that it’s all decided already – whether you’re a Trump supporter who wants to say it’s all rigged, or a third-party supporter who’s angry Johnson and Stein weren’t in the debates, or a Bernie supporter who thought the primary was fixed, or someone who wants to vote FOR a candidate and can’t support either option, or an apathetic person who thinks everyone’s equally terrible and there’s no point getting involved or speaking out or trying. Who knows, maybe any or all of that is true, and the Secret Masters of the Illuminati have already decided every president through 2032.  Maybe we, the people who vote and argue and participate, are dupes, believing in a false reality.

But maybe we just need to act like democracy itself isn’t broken, and this act itself will *be* democratic.  One that lets us do what we can to keep that main scaffolding in place while we try to make more significant changes at the local level.  Maybe we can try to bring about that change we want in our neighborhoods, help to shape the reality we live in every day, through the people we choose for our Board of Education and our Court of Criminal Appeals.

Even if it does nothing to exert my will on objective reality, I’ll still perform an arbitrary and meaningless ritual by going to vote. Even if it changes nothing but my own perceptions, I’ll value that sense of investment, of participation, of affirmation, regardless of how my state as a whole actually decides or what the electoral college might do thereafter.  Perhaps I might as well stick pins in a voodoo doll, or focus on a sigil, or cross my fingers, or pray.  But I’ll try to fill the circle next to Clinton’s name – and close the circle on a rite to banish Trump back into irrelevancy.

Day 27 – A Song You Think Can Save The World

Good thing this isn’t a tall order, nor hyperbolic in any way.  I’d really like to say I’ve been slow to write this one because I’ve been formulating a well-reasoned and elaborate justification behind the power of a certain song, and that – at long last – I’ve come up with something brilliant and beautiful.

Actually, I’m hopped to the gills on Mountain Dew, and I figure that if ever I could barf out some stream-of-consciousness stuff to meet the theme, this would be the time to do it.  (And no, that’s no PG euphemism for anything.  Good old caffeine has always been my best muse, and frankly I tremble to think about how I’d react to anything harder.  I tremble a bit anyway, at this point.)

The first thought that pops into my head at this prompt is… “Save what from what?”  What about the world really needs to be saved?  If you’re talking about man’s inhumanity to man, well, that’s just hardwired into the human psyche; tough noogies.  Our little primate brains can only clearly conceptualize around 150 people as being real and actual people with real and actual feelings like us; everyone else is a sort of cipher.

Next time you’re stuck in traffic, think about all those rows of people all around you.  Try to realize that every single driver and passenger is coming from somewhere, going to somewhere, and that every one has a purpose.  Not only that, but they each have their own history, their own feelings, their own favorite songs and favorite foods, their own great memories and terrible nightmares and bold aspirations and secret shames.  You’re sitting just yards away from all of these people, all of your disparate journeys bringing you there, to that same place, at that same time. You probably have something in common with all of them.  If you somehow knew what it was, you’d think that this conjunction was some fantastic coincidence — to think that the mystic vagaries of the Universe could bring together all these similar people at once!  But it’s so agonizingly mundane that you can’t even care.  Unless you take the time to really think about it, it’s hard to avoid objectifying them, treating them like some sort of Other.

What’s the solution to that?  It’s not like having smaller, more isolated villages and tribes is a sound solution; this newfangled global economy schtick isn’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon.  Besides, while you’d feel much more in tune with your small community, you’d probably feel much more conflict with those other communities beyond. We humans really like being in groups and having that sense of belonging – of being special, of being apart from the others. But you can’t have that sentiment if EVERYONE is invited.  The cool kids’ club isn’t “cool” if it doesn’t actually separate the social chaff from the wheat, and belonging doesn’t feel special anymore if you know that literally everyone else belongs, too.

But a monoculture has its own problems.  In my totally-not-a-real-sociologist opinion, a monoculture is just as bad for the survival of humanity as it is for the survival of, say, a food crop.  Variety makes survival more likely.  Some strains will be hardy against certain stressors, others will be weak against them but strong elsewhere; if only one strain is allowed to proliferate, but it’s affected by some kind of blight, that entire crop can die out.  The inclination may be to make one super-strain that’s hardy in every way, resistant to every possible stressor – but there’s no way to predict what stressors will arise in the future.  So versatility and adaptability can be more powerful than singleminded stubbornness.  And maybe the same’s true for cultures.  Because, if some devastating meme infects the monoculture, and there’s no wide variety of ideology, perspective, or general cultural coping-mechanism… well, it’s Gros Michel bananas all over again, and who’s to say whether there’s a Cavendish to fall back on.

It’s with prompts like this that I realize how easy some other people might have it.  People like those I grew up around.  Those who believe in humans as intelligently-designed creatures with a spark of divinity within them, creatures guided by God whether they believe it or no, creatures who are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  Those people can just answer this with “Jesus Loves Me,” talk about how Jesus is the way and the only way,  remind everyone that non-believers will go to Hell, and sign off satisfied in their testament.  Things are harder and hazier when you see humanity as the risen ape instead of the fallen angel, and when you don’t believe that you (or anyone else) actually has (or could possibly have) the One True Right Idea.

The distressing thing is, humans don’t have an inerrant moral compass; “good” isn’t a real and external force in the world, and people can convince themselves of the rightness of just about anything – especially if the ultimate moral of the story is “I’m a special hero.” It’s pretty terrifying.  We’d like to think we’re moral and we’d stand up against abuse and atrocities, but… we tend to accept whatever’s around us as normal, no matter how repugnant it is.  Just look at Japanese internment camps, racism, homophobia, or harvest gold shag carpeting.   We don’t want to be outside the norm – especially not if that norm is armed to the teeth and on the lookout for “sympathizers.”  I know that this whole relativism thing freaks out some of those people who have faith in a god they see as the flawless and incorruptible font of all good and truth and rightness.  As long as they think their moral compass points due God, they think they’re fine – and they think it’s terrifying that others might not have a god-based moral compass. But they won’t believe the terrible truth: that everyone’s got their own selfish little magnet that they use to sway the needle. Everyone’s compass is still pointing every which way, and many are still pointing toward hate, but they’re all telling themselves the same story – that their way is what the higher power wants for the world.  That the very fact that it feels right to them is proof that the higher power wants it, because that power wouldn’t lie. So they’d rather talk about why the needle moves for them, and how strongly it does, and how little it wavers, and how firmly they believe that direction is North, than they want to actually walk in that direction or do anything for anyone who isn’t on that path.

It’s not like having an ego like that is bad, or that it’s wrong to let it guide you.  I’m not entirely convinced that ego-dissolution is any more noble or productive than being ego-driven.  (Though it’s less likely that you’ll natter on about how your god has a plan for you, and will protect you no matter what damnfool thing you’re actually doing.)  Still, that magnet of your self-interest may be big or small, strong or weak, but it takes a transcendent effort to throw it away and watch the compass swirling – reacting to all the other magnets of all the other selves around you, no longer even presuming to guide you toward true north.  Letting it just guide you toward others.  So maybe it’s enough to just walk where you can, lost though you are, and try to do what you can for whoever you find along the way.

But what would I know; the closest I get to helping anybody is blathering away at stuff like this, as if my half-digested ruminations are insightful or valid in any way.  That’s the other problem of this whole prompt: the assumption that everyone, much less anyone, could find inspiration or even meaning in one thing.

So, what else could possibly work?  It’s not like I could even lean on some secular hymn like “Imagine,” because that, too, romanticizes human nature to the point of utter implausibility.  The fact that we have to try to imagine these things is part of what makes it so melancholy: people don’t really want to walk hand in hand with their fellow man; they want their fellow man to wise up, stop doing the weird Other-y cultural crap they’re doing, and walk hand in hand with THEM.  “I hope someday you’ll join us,” after all.  And even if “the world will live as one,” well, there we go with the monoculture again.  We’re not gonna live as one.  We don’t need to.  We don’t even need to want to!  We can maybe just be content with other people doing their own thing and, y’know, not killing each other over it.  That’s as close as we’re ever going to come to “saving the world.”

Honestly, even that is unlikely. If a biological mechanism behind aggression could be found – or even a biological mechanism behind selfishness and entitlement, which is arguably at the core of every type of cruelty – and if those inclinations could be treated or cured or prevented… I’m just not sure if people would accept that.   We value autonomy too much to ever do those things.  We’ll inoculate people against diseases of the body; we’ll take out tonsils sometimes before they ever get infected, just to be proactive – but when it comes to aspects of personality and identity and senses of self, those are just inviolate.  Which is a little strange, when you think about it.  Charles Whitman, who infamously shot a bunch of people from the clocktower at the University of Texas, is remembered as being a notorious spree killer who just snapped one day.  But he had a brain tumor, and his violent tendencies grew over time; he lost more and more control by the day.  What if all violence is like this?  What if it’s all tiny tumors, or small-scale brain damage that we don’t have instruments sensitive enough to measure right now?  What if it could all be treated?

I’m not sure that we’d allow it.  We’d see it as Clockwork Orange style brainwashing.  A manipulation of the center of identity, of selfhood.  Taking out an inflamed appendix isn’t morally-nebulous “appendixwashing,” after all, because that’s not the core of anyone’s sense of self.  It doesn’t guide their behavior, prosocial or antisocial as it may be.

In this culture, at least, we have this idea that any change to our personality or our beliefs or our behaviors has to come from within, or else it’s inauthentic. Feeling like we’re being our best and truest self is more important than being impelled to “do the right thing” by someone else’s standards.  We are Americans; we have American Exceptionalism; we have American Bootstrappy Independence, and we need to have the right to choose. And that includes the right to choose to be a selfish, entitled asshole who kills and maims and tortures and hates, I guess — even if the person who’s choosing that is actually being affected by some actual biological damage and they aren’t really capable of choosing otherwise at all.

I doubt that this cultural concept is likely to change.  (And it’s not like it’s uniquely American, either, though I think some elements of our culture really hammer on this implausible narrative that we can do and be and become anything, which sets us up for some truly egregious cognitive dissonance.)  But I think it is further evidence that humanity’s not going to be won over by recognizing ourselves as part of the brotherhood of man.  We can’t think that broadly about so many people without turning them into faceless abstractions, and when we think about ourselves as part of that global village, we can only imagine ourselves becoming faceless abstractions as well. On the small scale and on the large scale, we want what’s ours, and anyone Not Us can cram it.  We’ll even tell ourselves all sorts of stories about why we, or the people we know, have extenuating circumstances whenever we’re in trouble, or sick, or in jail, or poor — but those OTHER people, the strangers, well, their problems are clearly due to moral failings, lack of effort, stubbornness, or stupidity.

Thanks, ultimate attribution error.

So – making the broad assumption that a song (or anything) could “save” humanity whatsoever – we don’t need a song that tries to inspire us to come together and hold hands.  “Jesus Loves Me” will not save us.  “Imagine” will not save us.”  “Kumbaya” definitely will not save us.  It’s not enough to feed the world or save the children, and who the fuck cares if they know it’s Christmastime at all.  You can’t just send Bob Geldof a fiver and have done with it.

I promise I’m really not trying to be this much of a cynical asshole about this prompt, but for fuck’s sake, you might as well ask for A Song That Could Make Everyone You Love Live Forever.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful?  Yes.  Don’t you want it to be true?  Yes.  Is it, or could it ever be?  No; our stupid little primate bodies are all going to die, and some of them are going to be brought to that death by other stupid little primates, and all the stories in the world won’t save us.  Even if we try to find a song about doing what’s right in order to help and protect others, well, that’s not safe either; this world contains horribly maladjusted people like those who feel it’s right to kill black people “because they threaten white society” or something, and everything is terrible forever.

I really don’t want to leave this blank, or put down something bleak and sarcastic.  The whole prompt is fundamentally flawed, but it’s not like I don’t understand the spirit in which it’s being asked. It’s not like I’m avoiding the mental exercise of figuring out what sort of song could actually inspire people to channel their selfish desire for exceptionalism and special-snowflakery into acts of heroic compassion.  That’s what it would probably take, really.  Because we’re stupid, selfish little primates and we’re inclined to care more about the primates that are more like us, closer to us, whom we know, than we care about the far-away ones who look and talk weird.  Because we’re not going to just become enlightened as one; we’re not going to wake up into Krishna consciousness, or turn into Indigo Children, or be transformed by b’ak’tun 13 or any other New Age bullshit.  We don’t get to just wait for compassion to fill our stupid little hearts.  We’re going to have to actually work for this.

Saving the world – if it means anything at all – means cultivating the ability to suspend your own self-interest in pursuit of a broader and more compassionate perspective.

I think that any song that could inspire that would be a song that acknowledges the differences between everyone, but recognizes that humans are all ultimately the same kind of animal.  A song that doesn’t try to compel anyone else to change their values or their beliefs, but that reminds us, as individuals, that we can change our own minds, when we choose to.

So.  What song makes me feel like I’m capable of getting past my own shortsighted individualistic bullshit enough to recognize how small and meaningless my perspectives (and problems) are – but also reminds me that, despite my tendency toward alienation, I’m still part of the human experience?  What song, by extension, might do the same thing for other people?

For me, it’s got to be personal – not about systems or societies changing, but individuals.  Something that reminds me to keep open to broader perspectives, to refuse to shut my eyes to the aberrant, the unconventional, the inconvenient.  Something that reminds me to try to understand more about the world instead of rejecting whatever I don’t personally like.

It’s got have something to do with being self-reflective enough to know myself and know my own limits – an ability to look at my beliefs and understand that I was taught some of them, gained others more passively through enculturation, gained others through personal experience, and gained still others through reason (but probably not as many as I’d like to think.)  It’s got to have something to do with admitting that my personal truth is only personal, and having a willingness to let it go and reach for something beyond the familiar.

But… it can’t just be ego-dissolution, it can’t just be breaking things down.  It’s got to involve building things up, too.  It can’t be about resignation or becoming a hermit, obviously; it can’t be about giving up on humanity, whether it’s your own humanity or humanity as a whole.  Because that’s not saving anything; that’s just refusing to play.  Understanding the limits and the arbitrariness of what I know and who I am have often alienated me from myself, ironically enough – being aware of how flimsy and constructed everything is, it’s hard to just exist “in the moment.” However, I do think that being mindful of all that subjectivity has, in the end, made it easier to be objective and empathetic.  (And, recursively enough, that ability has made it easier to suspend judgment not just of others, but of myself – making it easier to extend myself the same trust and compassion as I’d give someone else.  A little bit, anyway; that bit is still kind of in the works.)

In short: the song has to encourage the listener to accept the limits of their minds and their selves, but it also has to encourage the listener to go beyond their comfort zone and to be willing to experience humanity in all its fullness — with the understanding that every other human who is or was or ever will be is just a slightly different iteration of the same damn pattern. That everyone is simultaneously utterly unique, utterly alone, and utterly similar to everyone else in fundamental ways.

I’ve thought about it for a long while, and I’ve finally realized what song, to me, encompasses this line-walking between the animal and the divine, the meat and the meaning.  The song that, perhaps, best traces the limits of the baffling fractal that is humanity.

Tool’s “Lateralus.”

Feed my will to feel this moment,
Urging me to cross the line.

Reaching out to embrace the random.
Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.

I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected
enough to step aside and weep like a widow.
To feel inspired, to fathom the power,
to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral of our divinity and still be a human.

It’s not like this song really could save the world.  Not everyone has the luxury of spending time in mindful contemplation.  Some people are overwhelmed by the difficulty of trying to keep their meat-husks alive and functioning for another day, and they don’t have the time or patience for anything that isn’t subsistence-level survival.  One might be forgiven for wanting to tell Maynard and company to take their expanded consciousness and shove it.

But.  If everyone did have that luxury – if everyone did have time enough and clarity enough to pursue this mindfulness, to feel deep emotional connections, to grieve and to be awed, to feel inspiration and agency, to suspend judgment, to try to transcend our limits…  It’s true that this song couldn’t save the world, and nothing else could either.  But I think it might be a reasonable description of what a “saved” world might look like, on the individual level, if it were attainable.

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Day 25 – Your Favourite / Most Tolerable Musical Number (Movie/TV/Theatre)

Though there are plenty of classics I’ve never seen on stage or screen – Les Mis, West Side Story, even The Phantom of the Opera – musicals have had a tremendous influence on my life.  I’m not active in theatre now; it’s not part of the warp and weft of my life.  Instead, musicals have often stood like lampposts in my life – beacons glowing on a darkened path, things to look forward to each year, things that cast new and different light on the world around me.

But, let’s approach things in order of appearance.  Movies, first.

I’ve heard arguments to the contrary, but I still consider The Blues Brothers to count as a movie musical – and a damn fine one, at that.  “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” puts a big damn grin on my face every time.  Even my dad would watch it without too much complaint, and he’s usually allergic to musicals, comedies, and fun in general.  But, while it’s pleasantly unifying, I’m not sure that it’s my very favorite movie musical, nor that any of its numbers are my number one.

Though I do try to resist going with the easy answer – and though I know it’s adapted from a stage show – I do have to at least put in a good word for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  “Hot Patootie / Bless My Soul” is indeed right up there among my favorite musical songs ever, though it’s understandable: I’ve always had a healthy appetite for Meat Loaf.

This 30 Days of Songs campaign has done nothing if not demonstrate that I rarely extricate the merits of a song itself from all its associated feelings and memories, and perhaps this is where that comes most clear.  Rocky Horror is no great cinema, and if not for the ridiculous audience participation angle, it would probably have faded into arguably-rightful obscurity. If it ever becomes possible to travel between parallel worlds, that’s probably going to be a usefully unique marker for Earth as we know it: “Oh, yeah, that’s the one where Rocky Horror is still a thing.”  If just because it was one of my life’s only occasions where I got to dress weird and go out late at night with friends, I loved everything about our midnight madness adventures.  From the hours of androgynous pseudogoth primping beforehand – fishnets, miniskirt, and low-cut top paired with stompyboots, necktie, and fedora – to the inexplicable traveling music by The Coral on the way, to all the traditional (and novel) callbacks at the show, to the requisite meal at Denny’s on the way home, there were all these lovely bits of ritual.  Each one was a variation on a theme.  Though I’m no end of bummed, to this day, that our last attempted trip was such a bust – the last tickets bought by the people in line before us, the night turned to an evening of somewhat awkward drinking and videogamery in a friend’s apartment – including, on my part, a bit of overindulgence, a bit of throwing-up, a bit of having to crash at said apartment, and a bit of my first hangover the next day.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dream of getting that band back together somehow, just once, and going to Rocky one more time.  It’s a little dumb, perhaps, a little The World’s End, but also a little true.

But there’s another movie musical that I love to no end.  And it’s got fun social memories attached to it, as well.  A visiting Internet Friend shared it with me, and I’d later share it with another Internet Friend who’d share it to that same online community. But, even taken at face value, it’s ridiculous, it’s sarcastic, it’s hilarious, and it has Alan Cumming.  (And, I ask you, who doesn’t like to watch Alan Cumming?) I have no strong feelings about pot, but I do have strong feelings that Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is one of the funniest goddamn things I’ve ever seen.

My favorite song from it is “Mary Jane / Mary Lane,” but it can’t be enjoyed out of context so easily, and so sharing it wouldn’t convey much – though the link’s there if you want it. As a consolation prize, here’s “Reefer Madness,” the opening song.  It only gets better from here.

I don’t keep in good touch with that originating friend anymore – which is largely my own fault.  I did that thing where things get awkward, you stop talking much for a while, and then you feel dumb and weird about ever trying to talk to them again because you feel like you should have something REALLY important to say, and who are you to just say “Hi” out of nowhere like it’s nothing, and they probably don’t even care about you anymore anyway, and everything just attains a degree of meta-awkward because you’re so intensely aware of how awkward things are, and how did everything get so weird and complicated?  It had been such a regular old thing – me, him, and another friend, all just talking online together, playing games, goofing off, forging some of my first new friendships in… uh… quite a bit of time.  Them being sometimes-obnoxious weirdos, me slowly coming out of my shell, them even coming to visit me at my apartment sometimes!  But signals were missed, and others misread, and stupid things were done by me, and all the goofy, endearing fun just wound up dissolving and falling away like a pile of sugar under a cascade of warm water.  That I spilled all over it.  Because I am terrible and dumb.   I dunno, maybe things didn’t really become that bad, and it was just my self-imposed awkwardness that made it so; I’m nothing if not good at making things worse than they have to be.

But this movie will still always remind me of that friend and his first visit, and our enjoyable – if arguably oblivious – nights of barbecue pizza and video games and Skyy Vodka and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and general awesomeness.  All of it my first affirmation that the online friends I was making in my new community were, well, real and actual friends.  It may be dumb somehow, or selfish, to let myself preserve those memories, given that I made such a colossal mess of everything in the year to come, but… well, if anything, remembering the awesome times just puts a finer point on that later cockuppery and makes me feel even worse, so I guess it’s still fair.

This actually does tie in to the TV musicals somewhat, believe it or not!  Because, when I first started working on this entry, I couldn’t think of a single musical episode of any show I’d seen – until I remembered Clone High’s rock opera episode, “Raisin’ The Stakes.”

Clone High was, in significant part, how I’d met those two friends.  I’d seen them around in that online community, had found them funny and weird and just obnoxious enough to be cheeky without being actually cruel, but hadn’t really talked to them myself.  I think it was the sort of thing where we were all in a larger group which had started to disperse for the evening, leaving this smaller contingent of me and them and one or two other people.  I was still hanging on to the social periphery – feeling like I should wander off myself, but too entertained to want to, even though I felt like I was basically a semi-voyeur, a laugh track at best.

But then, one of them made a reference to something that had happened in the ’80s.

Making the other interrupt with “WAY WAY BACK IN THE 1980s?”

The first returned the volley: “SECRET GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES”

The second, I believe, was prepared for this, and was already quick on the draw with “DUG UP FAMOUS GUYS AND LADIES.”

But I was prepared, as well, and butted in with “AND MADE AMUSING GENETIC COPIES.”

There was some surprised boggling on their part , some “You’ve watched Clone High?!” – and probably just some surprise and bafflement that I actually said anything at all –  and, somehow, I got to be part of the conversation.  I had no idea how I was accomplishing this, and was expecting them to shoo me away with a broom at any point – or reveal it all to be some complex setup to make fun of me – but I ran with it.

And, to my surprise, they let me talk to them again in later days.  Sometimes, they even instigated conversations with me!  I was still – obviously – incredibly socially awkward at the time, but they both were instrumental in my great, slow, thawing-out.

So I would point to “Raisin’ Us Higher” as my favorite TV musical number, despite that faint post-dated tinge of social upfuckery, if just by dint of it being the only one I’d ever seen.  BUT!

As of this very night, I’ve finally watched the full series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  And anyone who knows that show knows that one of the best episodes is, in fact, a musical.

It’s handled realistically, strange as that may sound – though the fact that the main character regularly fights vampires and demons means that it’s already a show with quite a lot of latitude in the Implausible Things Happening department.  But the fact that everyone’s suddenly expressing their secret feelings in song is, well, not exactly approachable to anyone who hasn’t been following along.  When I say that someone who hasn’t watched Buffy wouldn’t appreciate it, that’s not a nose-in-the-air belittlement of ignorant philistines – it’s a caution that, just as they couldn’t jump into any sixth-season episode of a seven-season show and understand who the hell these people are, how they relate to each other, and what the flying purple monkeyballs they’re talking about, they definitely couldn’t just enjoy “Once More, With Feeling,” either.

Which is a shame, because trust me, you guys:  this episode is absolutely great, and this song is my favorite of the lot.  No, it can’t be enjoyed as well out of context, but it’s probably the most accessible out of any of them, so here it is regardless.

I’d say some interesting or clever things here about how I relate to this particular bit of media, or what pleasant associations it has – but, honestly, it’s all too live and present to have crystallized in my memory like that.  Ask me again in a year or five, when The Summer Of 2015 is a distinct and encapsulated bit of history, rather than just, y’know, my life as it is right now.

But it’s safe to say that it will always remind me of yet another friend of mine – and of thousand-mile, distributed-networking, two-man Buffy Marathon pizza parties.

I guess there’s just something about me, pizza, dudefriends, and musicals.

But there’s also just something about me and musicals.

I grew up not only on Disney movies with Ashman and Menken, but with my mom’s VHS tapes of Rogers and Hammerstein. When I wanted to watch a tape, there were strong odds I’d put in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin, but when I felt like being a little more grown-up — mature enough to enjoy live action — I was likely to pop in South Pacific, The Music Man, or The King and I. I might not have understood everything that was going on in them at the time – and I don’t even remember their plots so distinctly now – but I surely remember the music.

Perhaps the song that charmed me most was “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific.  It was unlike anything else in the show, and it sounded as strange and mysterious as the island itself.  The then-innovative Technicolor extravaganza didn’t hurt, either.  I remember wanting to go to Bali Ha’i on vacation, and being sad to learn it was fictional.  Though a little research now shows that it was based on Aoba Island in Vanuatu, so perhaps there’s still hope.

I don’t count that as my favorite movie musical number now, though.  Nor as my favorite stage musical number, even though that started out on Broadway. But it is an important part of my musical background – though not nearly so much as stage musicals were.

My sister was in high school when I was in elementary school, and she was involved in school plays.  Only backstage, however; she never trod the boards.  But my mom and I would go twice each school year: to the Fall Play, which fell sometime around October or November, and the Spring Musical, when landed somewhere around March or April. I went because it was something to do, only to find that they entranced me like nothing had before.

There was something ineffably magical about being in the presence of a live performance, even one put on by rural white-bread high schoolers.  I could watch a story unfurling in front of me, with true, live people inhabiting those characters.  There was no screen, no barrier, no pause button or rewind or fast forward – it was really there, really happening, there and then.  They were reciting lines that had been recited by who knows how many people before, but never just this way, in just this place, on just this night, with just this audience.  For me, theater bore all the awe and ritual of church.  It was where people could gather, sit in silence, and let stories feel true and real. And when singing and choreography matched up with the swell of strings and horns, it raised the little hairs on my neck, it sent chills down my spine, it brought the blood hot to my cheeks, and it made the world feel, somehow, just right.  Despite that my only comparable feeling was the one I got when thinking of just the right word or just the right rhyme, it was something I had no word for.  I do now, though – frisson – and yet it still seems unnameable.

I don’t remember as many of the plays, now, but I do remember the musicals: in no certain order,  “Guys and Dolls,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Anything Goes,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Marc Chagall’s “The Fiddler,” a source of inspiration for “Fiddler on the Roof.”

It was “Fiddler” that struck me – and stuck with me – most.  Given the rural white-bread nature of my town, I genuinely did not know that religions other than Christianity existed.  My family didn’t go to church, we weren’t made to do bedtime prayers, we weren’t taught to fear God or a Devil or Hell, but it was so culturally prevalent that I absorbed the notions anyway.  Ambient dogma.  So when I watched this musical with all its unfamiliar language and customs, it was a window on another world.   I suppose its says something about the uniformity of my town that Judaism could sound so alien and “exotic,” but so it seemed.  I actually wasn’t sure, at first, whether it was fictional or not, but – nerd that I was – I did my research, and was amazed to learn that Judaism was an real, still-existing religion.

I still remember, sitting at my desk in second grade, likely the week after the show, breathlessly gushing at the kid next to me.

“Did you know that there are religions that aren’t Christianity?  I thought they were all extinct!”

And I still remember his response, too:

“Yeah, but we’re working on that.  Everyone will believe in Jesus someday.”

I don’t know what shocked me more, what he said or how he’d said it – so casually, so hopefully, without a shred of malice.  The idea of all those ideas, those stories, those languages, those customs, going away… it felt worse than the endangerment of anything else.  I watched plenty of Nature and Wild America, so I knew all about endangered species and worried about them with a sense of helpless shame and guilt – but this was on a whole different level.  Save the whales, sure; save the tigers; mourn the dodos – but to think of an entire way of seeing the world falling away into history, never to be thought or believed again?  To think of people wanting that to happen, trying their hardest to erase that belief and replace it with their own?  I felt this curdled blend of horror and anger and disgust.

So I read everything about Judaism I could get my hands on, throwing information from library books into my brain as if I were throwing them out of a burning building.  I thought it was only a matter of time before the missionaries won and Judaism – and whatever else was out there – died forever.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I found information on the Holocaust, which was only fuel for that fiery fear.  How anyone could have let that happen then, or stand on a remotely similar side now, I just couldn’t fathom.

But I never really wanted to convert, though I’m sure people practically expected me to, by one point. The  YHWH of the Torah was – surprise, surprise – no more credible than the God of the Bible to me.

I’d never been able to make myself believe in God, prevalent as the idea was around me. I’d try, but it felt like my little mind games of trying to look at the green grass and convince myself I was seeing red.  No matter how hard I tried to imagine, how hard I tried to believe, how much I tried to persuade or punish myself, I couldn’t see the grass as red, and I couldn’t see anything as made by God.  The closest I could get was acknowledging that there was nothing in sounds of the word “red” that gave that noise any meaning, and that someone out there might speak a language where the word pronounced “red” meant the color I called “green.”  Or acknowledging that some people were colorblind, and the “red” and “green” both meant the same brownish smear – they could look at the green grass and call it red, they could tell no difference, but it was because there was something skewed in the way their eyes detected colors.  I wondered if I was the “colorblind” one or not, and worried frequently about whether everyone else was right, God was real, and he’d be sending me to Hell for being unable to believe in him.

Not only that, but he’d be sending all the believers to Heaven, no matter how they treated anyone, either.  As a certain somewhat-friend would tell me, some years later, God wouldn’t let anyone do anything bad to a fellow Christian. Anything cruel that happened only happened because someone wasn’t saved.  (It was an argument mirrored by a somewhat-boyfriend, some couple decades after that: a Baptist could never go to Hell, he said, no matter what he did – he’d just go to the skeezy outskirts of Heaven instead of the right hand of God.  These beliefs may not have been true representations of mainstream Christianity nationwide, but they were certainly representative of what I saw around me.)  So reading about the Jewish religion gave me no better insight on God or theology or matters of faith — but it did make me aware that there was more out there than Baptists, the Catholic “Mary-worshippers” they groused about, or the Satanists that were supposedly sacrificing babies to Judas Priest while reading D&D manuals backward, or whatever.

I liked the ideas of some of the Jewish customs and rituals, since I was fond of rituals of all sorts.  I loved picking up words in Hebrew and Yiddish, since I was fond of words of all sorts. And the music sounded neat – assuming, as I was, that Fiddler on the Roof was anything to go by.  I just wanted to understand everything about the religion and the culture, to absorb, to keep it as much as I could without being it – in hopes that, even if Nazi Klansman missionaries got rid of every single Jewish person in the world, and burned every book about them I’d ever read, their worldview wouldn’t totally die.

…Meanwhile, from all I could tell, my supposed peers were most concerned about how to convince their parents to buy them a pony, and who was cuter, Luke Perry or Jason Priestley.

Yeah, I was pretty rad at alienating myself.  Maybe everyone had such hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing daydreams of saving something – a culture, a pony, a Priestley – and I was the only one with poor enough social skills to blather about my interests so much.  Regardless, it certainly didn’t help me relate to anyone, which didn’t exactly help me gain the social skills that would let me de-pariah myself.

That one simple night of watching a high school performance of Fiddler had a massive impact on me for years to come.  It made me aware of other ways of thinking, yes, but my fandom was probably the #1 factor that took my social status from “quiet ugly nerd kid” to “grade-wide verbal punching bag.”  Objectively, I’m sure it was only to be expected; I was probably completely insufferable.  But from adults I got nothing but the usual platitudes about “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve” and “Ignore them and they’ll go away” and “Boys will be boys,” rather than anything that would help me actually figure out how not to be – as a classmate so accurately put it – a social reject.  So, in due time, I gave myself up as a lost cause, internalizing that idea that God didn’t let bad things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, and accepted that I should never have, show, or share strong feelings of any sort.

The Judaism jag passed in a few years’ time, and I learned – with much more muted interest – about Islam and Sikhism and Hinduism and Jainism and Buddhism (and psychology and philosophy and biology and astronomy, and paranormal and unexplained phenomena, and sci-fi and fantasy and…) and I continued my fascination with all the different ways people could see and believe and think about the world.  I grew all the more convinced that no religious belief was right, but that it was our ability to tell ourselves these stories about the world – to look at the world and imagine it otherwise, then try to bring it into being – that really made humans something special.

That said, I still couldn’t seem to understand the people around me, and I figured I was a complete cipher to them, as well.  But, in a depressing but tidy way, my belief that I wasn’t allowed to feel things or be happy kept me from feeling too bad about that life-permeating unhappiness. At least I was dispassionately absorbing and processing information in my own way, influenced relatively less by other people.  I wasn’t trying to keep up with the Joneses, I wasn’t hoping to be popular – I was just trying to avoid being noticeable at all. And so, while I learned to subdue as much visible personality as I possibly could, I “cultivated a rich inner life,” which is a respectable sounding way of saying I spent a lot of time alone reading books, listening to music, and playing video games.  But, in that near-anaerobic isolation, my ideas got to swirl and ferment into new and interesting thoughts.  Especially when I got Internet access. Sure, I was convinced for decades that I was fundamentally worthless, undeserving of the human experience, and so transparently, inherently contemptible that nobody could ever like me in any way.  But at least I felt free, in my mind, to think about whatever I wanted, to try on any idea, tailor it in any way, discard it, repurpose it, or reassemble it.

And so I can’t help but wonder.  How might I have turned out, if I’d stayed at home that night and never saw the show?  Would Judaism have fascinated me as much, if my first glimpse didn’t come with art and song and frisson?  Would I have found something else to obsess and ostracize myself over?  Would I ever have gotten so isolated and probably-depressed?  Or would I have latched on to something my peers also liked, found a group of friends, learned better social skills, and turned out normal?  Would I have tried to keep those friends by stomping down my other ideas and interests, picking up theirs, and trying to follow the fold, to quote a different show tune?   Maybe I’d be typical now – married, churchgoing, working a steady day job; or a homemaker even, on my second kid, if I’d really decided to care more about social expectations than my own feelings.  Or maybe I’d be even weirder, having had encouraging friends who spurred me to identify and follow my interests earlier on.

But it’s incredibly likely that the following is true: that, without being a social outcast all through school, I wouldn’t have some of the issues that I came to bear.  I wouldn’t have been able to relate to and appreciate my weirdo friends from theatre, all of us, in some way, the outcasts’ outcasts.  I wouldn’t have had the college experience that I had – wouldn’t have made some of the same mistakes that drove my personality further underground than ever.  …And, seeking to make my way back out again, in as distanced a way as possible, a way that was on my own terms, a way that was mediated by a few thousand miles of fiber-optic cables and a freedom to just log the hell out whenever I felt in over my head, I wouldn’t have made my way into that online community that’s been so overwhelmingly influential and important to me these past few years.  I’ve forged so many genuine friendships through it – some of which I’ve somehow managed not to ruin.  And, honestly, I can’t really fathom a world, a me, that isn’t touched by all these people.  I don’t know where I’d be, what I’d be doing, what I’d be putting up with.

If I had to do every single stupid thing in my life over again, just this way – the same obnoxious fandom, the same utterly unviable responses to the constant mockery, the same isolation and drama and awfulness – in order to get to the parallel world where I meet all these incredible weirdos from all over the world… you’d better believe I’d do it.  I spent a very big part of my life wishing that someone fundamentally better were living it instead of me, and wishing that I could do everything over, and do it right this time.  I’m not entirely sure whether this new feeling is one of competence or complacency, but it is what it is.  I wouldn’t change it.

Life’s a weird thing; you never know what all will result from one seemingly-minor thing on one seemingly-unimportant day.  You’re probably doing everything wrong, but the absolute mistake that is your existence may be setting you up for other, more interesting things to come.  You’ve just got to run with it and make the best of it, even when everything is truly, objectively, pants.

So. I looked forward to those high school plays each year my sister was in school. And, by the time she graduated, one of our second cousins was in high school and working as a techie.  And his mom was the person in charge of tickets.  So we still got to go: my mom helped out in the ticket booth, I came with, and I got to claim front-row seats (and even catch little bits of the behind-the-scenes preshow buzz.)  Then that techie’s younger brother, only a couple years older than me, became a high schooler – and a rare freshman-year Thespian, since he’d actually been coming to help his brother out while still in junior high.  So my aunt still did the tickets, my mom still helped, and I still went.

And, finally, it was my turn.

I didn’t have great expectations of myself; I never expected to be on stage, not even for a minute.  But I did want to be involved with theatre, in whatever way they’d let me.

I don’t remember, now, how exactly I fell into it.  I think I just turned up after school one night, and tried to help, and tried to keep out of the way.  I’m sure I didn’t audition for anything my first year; backstage would be daring enough.

And was it ever.  Everywhere else in school, there was clear control.  Teachers taught classes, classes were subdivided by grades, grades were subdivided by Honors, College Prep, and Tech Prep tracks. Everyone had a place, and except for a few (almost universally awful) classes, the castes did not intermingle.  But behind those huge blue doors, the world was different.  Upperclassmen taught the underclassmen, there was barely an adult in sight, and nobody seemed to care about anything except what needed to be done, who could do it, and who could teach the people who didn’t know. Except for best-guesses based on who looked older than whom, it was hard to even tell who was in what grade. It was the first time that I’d seen anyone even approximately my age given any degree of power or decision-making.  And when those decisions were about making art, constructing that tangent reality… it was, by far, the most influential thing of my high school career.  I’d go through the whole of high school all over again, every bit of stupidity and awkwardness and stifling frustration, just to spend more time in that experience.

However, for whatever reason – perhaps a rumored long-simmering feud between the choir teacher and the theater teacher – musicals fell by the wayside some years before I started.  We didn’t perform any musicals during my time there – except that I think we did “Bye Bye, Birdie” one year and I didn’t participate in it because… Quiz Bowl?  Because choir preps wouldn’t learn anything?  I don’t really know, now.

So while my love of musicals is definitely part of what brought me to high school theatre, made me a Thespian, and allowed me to meet some of my most influential and enduring weirdo friends, all of that experience isn’t really pertinent to the topic.  But I absolutely had to mention it, at least in passing – or what passes for “passing” in my writing.

Sadly enough, musicals have never been as big a part of my life since then.  I went to the opera a lot in college, and I saw a few musicals – most notably Rent and Avenue Q – at the campus auditorium. Rent just didn’t speak to me much, and felt like a cheesy high school assembly.  Implausibly upbeat caricatures trying painfully hard to be cool, insistently trying to inspire some revelatory social awareness of shocking, hot-button issues like Some People Are Poor And Some People Are Gay And Some People Have AIDS But They’re Still People.  I realized, watching that, that I was just immune to its supposed power.  I wasn’t a hip, trendy young person who was just now discovering the power of musicals as an expressive art form.  I wasn’t a fussy well-to-do patron who was just now discovering the plight of the poor.  I found no engaging contradictions or juxtapositions, just hokiness and an almost palpable sense of self-importance. Avenue Q, meanwhile, was clever in is execution, but the music and plot was often inane – much like the sort of life it portrayed, I suppose, so… success?  I did end up working for the opera theater, post-graduation, for a single season, but left due to layoffs and injury – then got a comfy desk job after that, which bore very little risk of nearly amputating my fingertip in jerry-rigged industrial equipment.  I haven’t been on either side of any stage since.

I miss it, though.  Quite a lot.  Maybe I should find some way to go to some performance, somewhere, sometime this year.  Once a year might not be too hard to arrange, if circumstances ever start looking up.  It doesn’t have to be world-class.  It doesn’t have to just set all my brain and limbic system afire with ineffable, nigh-holy frisson.   It just has to be, and I just have to be in the presence of it, in much the same way that I just need to go out and have grass underfoot and trees overhead once in a while, or else something at the base of my brain begins to gnarl.

I think I need that again – not just the conjunction of music and motion, but being in the presence of it, live and raw and ephemeral, one fleeting iteration of something that’s been recurring possibly for decades and may keep on going for decades more.

So I think I’ll see what I can do.  See if I can’t get live theatre into my life again.  See where it takes me this time.

Once more, with feeling.

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Day 23 – A Song By An Artist/Band That You Have No Idea Why People Like

…First off, excuse the hell out of the winceworthy, hamfisted structure of this prompt.  I didn’t make it up!

This might be a challenging one to answer.  There are plenty of kinds of music that I might not personally like, but I can understand how somebody else would.  Christian Rock. Screamo. Nu-Metal. Disco.  There are people who have certain thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, and they find those feelings reflected in that music.  Listening to that music gives them a sense of inclusion and solidarity.   Is it depressing to think that someone’s life and mind might exist in such a way that they could see something like Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” as anthemic?  Good sweet gods on a waffle griddle, it sure is.  But that’s not the same thing as having no idea why they like it.

And, after all, not everything is about the lyrics or the melody or anything else.  You can like a song because it reminds you, more strongly than almost anything else, of a certain place and time.  The music itself was incidental to the experience, really, but – this many years on – it’s the only element of that experience or that memory that you can really engage with again.  You know you’ll never see those people again, or be in that place, and even if you were, you’re not the same person you’d been.   Hearing that song, then letting your memories unspool, is the closest thing you can ever have to experiencing those memories again.  Well, short of dreams, hallucinations, or certain types of brain trauma.  It might be inaccurate in the strictest sense, but I have no problem with someone saying they like that song, even when it’s just a shortcut for saying they like the memories that only that song can evoke.

So, at heart, the question might actually be, “Is there any artist or band that seems so completely aberrant that I can’t see how anyone could empathize with their work — while simultaneously NOT being ‘performance artists’ whose entire purpose is to actually *create* that sense of alienation, such that a conscious failure to empathize actually fulfills their purpose?”

Good dang question.

I’m not going to take the easy route of castigating Justin Bieber.  He’s just a product.  I can understand how people like his music, or other manufactured pop music, because it is specifically designed to be catchy.  I can take umbrage with that whole racket – and do! – but, again, that doesn’t mean I can’t understand how people like it. It’s like saying I can’t understand why people don’t like the taste of… well, bubblegum.  It isn’t nutritious, it isn’t filling, it isn’t even what you’d call a food, and it’s just a sticky, artificial vector for sugar.  If you have a tongue, and you like the taste of sugar, you probably like the taste of bubblegum. It’s not “good food,” of course, and Bieber isn’t “good music,” but it’s cheap, well-marketed, and designed to appeal to the most basic receptors.

So.  It can’t be music that’s designed to be unpleasant, dissonant, or confrontational, because disliking it actually fulfills its purpose.  And it can’t be music that’s designed to be popular, because liking it fulfills its purpose.  This artist’s music has to be something else.  Something that I can’t fathom anyone having strong feelings for whatsoever.  Something that just seems devoid of unpleasantness or dissonance, with no polarizing themes… something inoffensive.  Offensively inoffensive.  Music that’s like tepid tap water: no zing, no sourness, no heat, no high fructose corn syrup, no caffeine, nothing that’s going to stir the blood, nothing that’s going to make you feel anything about anything.  Something so neutral that I can’t imagine anyone saying they LIKED it.  Just that they didn’t necessarily dislike it.

I think I’ve got it.

I have no idea why anyone would like Kenny G.

It’s hold music.  It does little more than occupy your ears.  When silence might make you think the line was dead, and the hold time is going to be so long that a series of beeps will get annoying, you play Kenny G.  It’s musical grout – a white, pasty, spongy spacefiller.  It’s functional — almost clinical.  I cannot fathom anybody going out of their way to seek Kenny G music.  I cannot comprehend purchasing a Kenny G album.   While I could understand it if more than 50% of persons surveyed in a broad cross-section of age and cultural demographics ranked Kenny G’s music as at least a 5/10, I can’t imagine anyone ranking it a 10/10, feeling their heart swell with hitherto unknown joy as the music gave song to their innermost self.  It simply strains my imagination to believe that someone out there is an obsessive, die-hard Kenny G fan. That they have all the albums, all the merchandise, they’ve followed the tour, their bedroom is bedecked in signed memorabilia.  That it isn’t a pathological fixation, but your usual sort of superfandom.

Even assuming such a person exists, I can’t help but imagine them saying they were proud of their collection, and glad to be Kenny’s #1 fan in all the world, but had to admit that they really liked Hall and Oates.

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Day 22 – A Song That Energizes You

I can’t dance, I can only haphazardly play any instrument, and I can’t sing all that well.  I can’t even read sheet music at a glance.  But, despite all that, I have always had a sort of strong musical empathy.  There are few things I love so much as letting a song carry me away: just leaning back and imagining some sort of narrative that ebbs and flows with the music, the drama rising, the story swelling and soaring as the song reaches its peak.   Blame the prevalence of the 80s Get Shit Done montage, where months and months of training and progress are distilled into one three-minute music video, perhaps.  But no words of wisdom, no last-minute terror, no simple sense of responsibility can spur me into action the way a song can.  With the right sort of tempo, the right sort of chord progression, and perhaps a gratuitous key change or two, the right song can just grab me by the adrenal glands and yank.

I’m feeling somewhat nostalgic this evening, so allow me to tell the tales of a few songs that have energized me through the years.

When I was in third grade or so, I intruded into my sister’s room one day and decided to listen to her stereo.  I’m not sure how I got away with this, exactly: if she just wasn’t home from school or, by then, possibly work; whether my parents were out of the house or just couldn’t hear the music; whether nobody actually minded, and it was one of those things that I thought was sneaky.

My sister was practically a decade older than me, which was more than a lifetime at that point.  She was a teenager, and teenagers were the font of all coolness.  (Not necessarily my own sister in specific, but teenagers in general.)  Still, I knew she had some cool music – the music that wasn’t for boring old people but wasn’t stupid kid stuff, either.

I don’t exactly remember my mental state at the time, but based on the general contextual evidence of the rest of my life, it probably wasn’t all peaches and dew.   Thanks to a handful of factors, some of them social, some of them biological, moody and angst-ridden adolescence came early.  So I went looking for the angriest-looking cover I could find, ideally one with the black-and-white Parental Advisory: Explicit Content sticker that was as sure a sign of quality as the Nintendo Seal of Approval.

And there it was: a cover with angry blue storm clouds, a skull-fronted, streaking motorcycle, and a gigantic malevolent bat on a skyscraper.  I looked closer.  The biker was shirtless but for a black leather vest!  He had long hair! His right hand was most assuredly NOT on the handlebars, but glowed with some mystical power!  The bat had massive claws and matted fur!  There was an angel tied to the top of the skyscraper!  There was a swear in the title of the album!  TWICE!  This was it, I knew.  I put the disk into the stereo, expecting rage and riot and instant damnation.  My sister didn’t have any albums by Judas Priest, after all, so this would have to do.

What I heard had all the screaming guitars I could have hoped for.  But more!  There were backup singers!  There were choirs!   It reminded me of musicals, really: bombastic, orchestral, like every emotion was dialed up to 11, with a nearly Gospel fervor.  It was over-the-top, precisely because it was so sincere.  Love and loss and lust and anger and guitars and pianos and demons and angels and motorcycles and anger and death and caring about nothing and caring too MUCH and EVERYTHING LOUDER THAN EVERYTHING ELSE!

THAT, yes indeed, is what adolescence sounds like.

So what songs energized me during my actual adolescence?  I was a little bit busy being a mopey and disaffected pseudogoth at the time, so there wasn’t a whole lot of energizing going on at all.  But I could only listen to the goth-music mix tape my friend mailed me so many times, and it’s not like that music was played on local radio, or even sold in many stores.  And, honestly, it’s not like I wanted to be a big sad sans-serotonin sack, so I tried to indulge myself by keeping my spirits up as much as I self-indulged in Joy Division. So I still listened to plenty of classic rock – and made time every Sunday night for The Dr. Demento Show.

I’m not sure if I could say that any one song from Dr. D energized me more than all others.  The sheer fact that something that weird, that individualistic, that hilarious, that subversive, was on the air…  demented it may sound, but it made the world seem like a better place.  Somewhere, a man made his living playing this music.  Many somewheres, hundreds and hundreds of musicians made the music he played.  Some recorded in studios.  Some in their basements.  Some in the Cal Poly bathroom.  There were bits by people who were world-famous.  There were bits by people utterly unknown outside the field of Dementia.  And I knew they probably had day jobs.  They were office drones, or maybe they drove a taxi or something, or worked at a gas station.  This was just something they did in what spare time they had, for fun, and because they damn well had a ridiculous song inside them and wanted to let it out.

I was no musician: I pecked awkwardly at my Radio Shack keyboard; I’d never been able to get the hang of a guitar; I could only make a few asthmatic sounds on the harmonica.  But I did like writing, I did like trying to write parodies of things, and I did harbor a small, strange hope that I’d make something that got on Dr. Demento someday.  Even just once, and never again.  It hasn’t happened, of course, and probably never will, and so I’ve contented myself with the fact that the Good Doctor has played some of my requests online – including a dedication to my friends.

Still, even when I was out of the broadcast range, even when the webcasts were shut down, it’s been a comfort to know it was on the air somewhere.  And, once it wasn’t on the air anywhere, it’s been a comfort to know it was online.

So there’s no one song from Dr. D’s vast archives that makes me more energized than any other – unless, of course, you count this lovely little tune right here:

Most people my age cared about sports scores, or who got voted out on their favorite reality show.  I stayed up until midnight on Sundays so I could hear who was #1 on that week’s Funny Five.  Who knows how much that reduced sleep might have ruined Monday’s scholasticism, but I regret nothing.

But that wasn’t the only energizing music of those years, though.  When I was a junior in high school, a friend burnt me a CD-R of music.  To my chagrin, it was an assortment that one of his other friends had given him, and not that most treasured and significant of gifts: the custom mix tape.  But still, it was a notable thing, because it was the first digital music I’d ever owned.    This was shortly after the dawn of Napster, which sounded like such science fiction at the time.  Unfortunately for me, even if we’d had the kind of Internet connection that would have made downloading even a single song remotely possible, my father was so particular about the computer that he wouldn’t allow anything to be downloaded or installed at all.  No music, no files, no games, not even updates to Shockwave or Flash.  Or, as was the thing at the time, RealPlayer.  Shudder.  But we’d only had the actual Internet for all of a year at that point, so I took what I could get – and was always well aware of how meaningless and optional Internet access was to him, the person with the money, the person who made the decisions.  I wasn’t about to risk breaking any rules and losing what little access I had.

But my friend thoroughly assured me that I could play the music right from the CD, nothing would end up on the computer, and nobody would be the wiser.   And so I began my plan.  The CD came home in its clear-fronted jewel case, tucked into a pocket of my backpack.  I had an hour or so before anyone came home from work. And so I conveyed that disc to the family computer, prepared to claim it had files for a group project, should anyone get home early, see it, and ask.  The hairs on my neck rose with the thrill of rebellion.  I put in the disc and looked at its assortment of contents.  A smattering of alternative songs, perhaps a couple Metallica tracks. To see files for actual recent songs was novel, to say the least. It made me think of a mix tape recorded off the radio.  Only, CD like, you could skip from one track to another without fast-forwarding.  No longer linear.

My expectations were low. I’d only heard two kinds of audio through a computer’s speakers, honestly: full-length MIDI arrangements of pop songs, and the ten-second clips of actual songs on Encarta 95.  It was a good few years past ’95, at this point, making Encarta far too out-of-date to have anything currently popular, to my constant chagrin.  (H2G2, I thought, had the right idea, and I was certain that it would supplant the CD-ROM encyclopedias that had were already supplanting the actual books. Close, but no cigar.)  So I figured that something had to be compromised to make this possible.  Maybe it would sound tinny and distorted.  Or a little hollow, the way it sounded on my cheap handheld radio.

“Energized” is not an inaccurate way to describe how I felt upon hearing my first mp3 ever, The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.”

I’m not going to say it sounded true as life.  The sound was coming out of the factory-standard speakers of a Gateway 2000, two years after “2000” had forever stopped coding for “future.”    But it sounded better than the radio did, in our particular part of the semi-suburban sticks.  And not that much worse than our decades-old stereo.  The thump of the bass, the swell of the strings, the ringing of the bells, it all came through clear, at least to my untrained ear.   No static, no crackling, no DJ prattle.

I was, indeed, impressed.

And so I checked out another song on the disc — after being somewhat surprised that the next song didn’t just play automatically, and amused that I didn’t have to hammer a Skip button to get from Track 1 to Track 12.

That next song:  Fatboy Slim, “The Rockefeller Skank.”

You talk about “energized…”  This was one of the more uptempo songs I’d heard, period.  The sampling was very novel to me – I hadn’t been aware, at the time, that the orchestral backing of “Bittersweet Symphony” derived from a sample, itself – and I liked how the lyrics, such as they were, became percussion in places, or just… tones.  But the snappy drums throughout it all!  The twanging guitar riffs!  That shifting of the gears at 1:23, which I lacked (and still lack) enough music theory knowledge to describe!   It wasn’t a catchy melody, it didn’t have poetic lyrics, but damned if it didn’t make you wanna move.

Regardless of the merits of the songs themselves, the whole concept of downloadable mp3s was, itself, an utter revelation. I wanted, so badly, to find some way of secretly installing Napster and gathering up all the music I wanted, from all the bands I’d heard of but never heard, and which our local stores didn’t even carry.  But I abstained.  If only because my parents didn’t stop having 56k AOL dialup until somewhere around 2011.

But soon high school was over, and soon graduation came.  I was 18, bridging that gap between “teenager” and “adult,” and I had almost no goddamn idea what I was doing with my life.  Everything about my entire existence had led up to going to college, and I had one last summer at home before my life went beyond the bounds of familiarity or easy prediction.  I’d never have to deal with certain people ever again!  I’d possibly never get to see certain other people ever again.  The exodus was here.

And so there was one song that stuck out in my mind at that time.  One song that I heard but rarely on the radio, one that I’d blare at ear-bleeding levels from my Best of The Who CD when no one was home.  It was the first song I played when I arrived in my dorm room.  And, when the CD cracked, when I was badly in need of some motivation, when I was full of caffeine and rebellion and possessed for the first time of a high-speed Internet connection, it was the first mp3 I ever downloaded.

The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

Sure, I could get into the music that excited me from my college years and beyond, but I like the idea of stopping it here.   For one, because my later musical discoveries have been rather more broad and more strange, and the storytelling would become far more convoluted and improbable.  To even establish who I heard the music from, or the context in which I heard it, or how I came into such a position in the first place… I’d need the better part of an autobiography.  (Fortunately, it would be the better part of my autobiography in many more ways than one.)

But, for another, because leaving it here best highlights a certain trend – the excitement of forbidden music.   In every case, the music that excited me was, in some sense, disallowed.  Because it was my sister’s CD.  Because I was up two hours past bedtime listening to music you’d have to be demented to put on the air.  Because they were mp3s of unknown and possibly unscrupulous origin, themselves made of illegally-sampled music.  Because it was an mp3 of known unscrupulous origin.  (But how else was I going to replace my broken CD without buying it all over again?)

Whether I was actually right or not about how forbidden the music was, or how much trouble I’d have been in if anyone had found out, that sense of anticipation primed the pumps: with the adrenaline already flowing, the hitherto aloof neurons suddenly forced into friendship, it was perhaps all the easier for the music to be exciting.  And, as I’ve readily admitted all throughout these prompts, it’s often not about the music itself: not the melody, not the lyrics, not the beat, just the utterly self-contained associations that the music evokes within my three pounds of squishy grey thinkmeat.

Still, each song was another chip out of my barriers and inhibitions.  Another fleck of mortar from between the bricks of the wall.  (That song, too, was exciting and anthemic once, in a way it can perhaps only be when you’re in seventh grade.)  And now, somehow, not only do I have a hole in that wall, I find myself in the position where I get to chip holes in the walls of others.  I get to share songs with people.  Songs that make them laugh, mashups that blow their minds, songs they’ve never heard before, songs they forgot they remembered.  It’s nothing but a party playlist, and yet… it’s one of the highlights of my entire week.

I’m still no musical expert.  I don’t know house from EDM, I don’t know how you tell black metal and death metal apart, and I wouldn’t know shoegaze if it gave me a flying kick with cleats.   But – and this is quite a momentous thing for me – I know what I think is fun, and not only do I get to have fun, I get to facilitate fun in other people.  Which is absolutely incredible, and energizing beyond almost anything except for sharing the things I write.  (Well, possibly moreso.  Sharing what I write is still at least five times more terrifying.)

But there’s nothing quite like wrapping up a multi-hour set, possibly while the sun begins to drag itself over the horizon, and playing one last wildly uptempo hurrah.

And so, the one that’s perhaps my favorite:

I haven’t gone many places in this world, to be honest.  I doubt I ever will.  There’s a lot I’ll never get to see or do, because of time and work and money and pain.  But this song always makes me feel like I have been on a hell of a journey, that I have come a long way through strange and varied lands, that I have owned more than could ever be summed — and that even more lay ahead.  For the four minutes of that song, the world is wide, and it’s not being held up away from me, and there’s a place in it for weirdness.

And, as it ends, another little chip falls away.

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Day 21 – a song from your favourite movie

And now I have to figure out my favorite movie!  Gracious.

As certain long-suffering friends of mine could attest, movies have not played a central role in my life.  Going to the movies was a once- or twice-a-year treat, and, those rare times I got to rent a movie, I tended to stick with my standards.  As a result, there are many classics I’ve never seen, or never saw until far, far later than you’d expect.  I never saw The Wizard of Oz until I was in 8th grade; I never saw The Goonies until I’d already graduated from college.  Of the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list, I’ve seen a whopping 21.  That’s almost a quarter, hey?

In the past few years, I’ve been seeing more movies, for certain – though not exactly any more of the classics.  I haven’t seen Citizen Kane, but I have seen DEATH BED: The Bed That Eats!  (Somewhere, a cinephile wicks an unbidden tear from his eye.)

So picking a sincere favorite film is… tough.  I can’t even read films very well, honestly, which makes even the best film hard to appreciate.  The bigger the cast, the more similar the characters, the more lost I am.  (The Godfather is the story of a whole bunch of indistinguishable black-haired guys in suits who kill each other for, probably, reasons.)  As with everything else on this list, I gall at picking a “best” anything – I don’t know enough about film to make that determination.  But when it comes to a subjective favorite… yeah, I’m still not sure..

In terms of the films I’ve simply watched more than anything else, I’d say it probably comes down to Star Wars or, possibly, HELP!  The one is a used-future modernization of the classic Monomyth.  The other is two or so hours of The Beatles being ridiculous.  But both of them are… comforting, in some way.  No matter what sort of mood I’m in, I’ll probably enjoy watching either one, and my mood will be all the better for having watched it by the time the credits roll.

Star Wars is… well, it’s Star Wars.  For all that it’s yet another riff on that same old Monomyth structure, it still feels so much like a glimpse into other worlds.  So many great aliens and robots and languages and technologies!  And, yes, so much great music.  I still remember being amazed to realize that different characters had different songs!  There was the Imperial March, obviously, but there were other bits of soundtrack that related to specific characters, varying a bit depending on what was happening!  Amazing!  It felt like a secret code somehow, a whole extra layer of information hiding in plain sight.  Not to mention that it was just plain beautiful.

Of course, I love the main theme and the Imperial March.  And if ever I fail to have chills on the Binary Sunset scene, just go ahead and put a tag on my toe.

But, much as I may love that one… I think The Throne Room / End Title are even better.  Bittersweet, of course, because it means the movie’s over.  But triumphant nevertheless, and carrying all the pride and weariness and relief without a single word being said.  Well, besides [assorted beeps] and [roar].

Not that I’m ever going to get married, but if I were, this is what I’d be playing when I went back up the aisle.

That’s right.  Eat a bag of ’em, Mendelssohn.

And what of HELP!, you may ask?  It’s a tough call there, as well, given that the entire movie is basically an excuse for The Beatles to lark around in the Alps and the Bahamas, playing music all the while.  And given that I’m being pressed to pick a favorite Beatles song, and that’s just onerous.

But the one that I like most today, at least, is probably “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.”  The slow jangling strumming, Ringo’s despondent tambourine-playing, the unexpected bits of classical flute… just plain lovely.

In fact, it was the first song I ever sang at karaoke. And, no, you don’t get to hear that.

I feel somewhat bad about this post, because I feel I should have something more to say.  But I don’t really have anything complex or profound to say about the songs themselves, or the movies themselves.  They are what they are!  Much as I may love analyzing things to death and back, some things are somewhat monolithic in my mind, and Star Wars and The Beatles are among them.  I’ll savor the minutia I pick up on, but I don’t always try to pick everything apart, weigh it, qualify it, justify it.  I allow it, and my enjoyment of it, to exist unquestioned.  And there are bits that make me grin, if not laugh, every single time, no matter how many times it’s been.  I’m glad enough of that; I’d hate to kill the jokes for good and all.

But I can question why I have that approach, of course!  And my best guess is not just that I was entranced by Star Wars, growing up, or that I also grew up feasting on a rich and steady diet of oldies (including an acceptable parts per million of Beatles.)  But it’s also that both movies gave me some small, scrabbling fingernailhold on social relevance, back in the dark days of late elementary school and junior high.  They gave me some common ground with friends, or at least with people that I hoped I could get away with calling “friends.” (I was used to social interactions that were asymmetrical, to say the least.)  But those movies were somewhat off the radar, at the time.  It was still shameful to be too much a nerd, back then; there weren’t many who’d openly admit to liking Star Wars, Star Trek, or anything else old or uncool.  Sharing an open fondness for these things created a camaraderie, a sense of being brothers in (pasty, noodly) arms.  A social… not relevance, really; perhaps mere presence, which was otherwise unattainable.  I had Things In Common with people, and they would actually talk to me about those Things!  It was a whole new world, I tell you.

Though these movies and these songs are still nearly timeless presences in my life, there is still some sense in which they’re never as vibrant as they’d been back then, back when it was us against the world — or, well, me and those people that acknowledged me against the world, not exactly like a team or anything, but, you know, headed the same general direction, coincidentally, for now.

Indeed, “for then,” for the most part; the last I’d heard, one of them became a real estate agent and the other joined the Peace Corps, and both are somehow married, and the world still seems a little upside-down for it, because apparently they figured out how to stop being awkward adolescent nerdlingers, and here I am in my underwear watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and eating a Christmas Tree Cake that had fallen behind the microwave.

But I do still keep in touch with the other of that strange small crowd, who’s in much the same odd boat, and who’s proved a more genuine and longstanding friend than any I’ve had.  There’s a delightful sense in which we’ve just been having the same single, sprawling conversation for a couple decades now, with occasional brief interruptions to go to the bathroom or go to bed or have a shitty relationship for a few years.  But the conversation always picks up again later, no need for “Hello” or “How are you,” just back into the swing of discussing whatever bits of music or movie or TV or life we care to discuss.

Like those movies themselves, it’s a comforting, familiar presence that can improve any sort of day, one which always elicits a grin at the least, which I enjoy just as it is, and which I don’t tend to question.  Is that profound, or just really myopic?  I don’t know.  (Third base.)

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Day 19 – A Song That Describes You / Your Personality

I’ve written at least two drafts of this post, then scrapped them.

Like everything else in this 30 Days (hah!) of Songs prompt, this just wants an example of a song that reflects some facet of your life. But ye gods and little fishes, “A Song That Describes You / Your Personality?!”

First, I tried to describe myself and define my personality, which involved trying to break myself down into each of the so-called five factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.  Of course, having broken things down so particularly, it only made it more difficult to find songs that described each element.

Then I tried to think of songs I’ve ever considered anthemic.  Which seemed promising, right up until I realized that many of the songs that were anthems at some point just aren’t so relevant anymore.  They describe me-as-I-was-at-a-time, but that isn’t the me that I am now.  It’s not as if those elements aren’t part of my life at all anymore.  They’re just… not at the forefront.  I hate to call them smaller or quieter, in case they’re truly just as large, possibly even bigger, only appearing so small because of foreshortening.  Perspective is a killer.  Still, the fact that they aren’t first and foremost in my self-identification… that’s something.

In short, my personality just isn’t quite what it used to be.

Not that I’m complaining at all. It’s just… strange, I suppose, to realize how inverted everything has become.

I’d been so introverted before, with no sense of will, no sense of agency, and not even much sense of identity. It’s inaccurate to say that there was a certain sort of person that I aspired to be – aspiration was selfish and the idea of being anything was hubris. But there was a certain sort of person that I felt intense guilt about not being able to be. There were things that I couldn’t really *want* at the time, but could regret not having. Feelings that I couldn’t precisely wish I could feel, but could acknowledge the feeling-shaped holes where they… not “should have been,” not even “could have been,” but a neutral, non-presumptuous “might have possibly fit, in a way that provided utility.”

On a really good day, I could write something creative, make a clever photoshop of some kind, have the wherewithal to do practical things, feel okay about going out in public, and even feel various emotions.  Excitement, goofiness, affection, awe, and possibly something that couldn’t really be considered “optimism,” but an absence of foreboding.  Something that couldn’t be called “pride,” but a temporary failure to acknowledge shame.  It’s not like I suddenly thought I was an okay person who had any sort of potential.  I just managed to not notice or care about how awful everything was for a while.  I’d even have conversations with a friend or two online, and we’d make each other laugh.  On a really good day, I might actually spend time with someone in person, going to get coffee or lunch.

Of course, the next day – or later that same day – perspective would come crashing back with a vengeance, and I’d think of all the time and energy I’d wasted, and what an absolute moron I looked like, and how much more likely it was that people were going to use my every action as fodder for mockery and mistreatment.  For many, many years, whenever I’d displayed any sort of satisfaction, enjoyment, or even minor interest, it was used against me, after all.  Switching off seemed like the best method of self-defense.

So, on an average day, I just tried to do as little as possible, to feel as little as possible, to exist as little as possible, generally trying to keep under life’s radar.  I did the things that were expected, or that I was told to do, or that would make my life blatantly and abundantly worse if I didn’t do them – if just because I was trying to have as completely non-remarkable an existence as possible.  It wasn’t laziness that made me such a doormat, it was my absolute conviction that, if I had the audacity to think or feel or do or want anything for myself, something absolutely horrible would be done to me or the people I cared about.  Because, as I absolutely knew at my core, I didn’t deserve to be happy, I didn’t deserve to be comfortable, I didn’t deserve to feel safe or wanted or welcome or acceptable, and even existing was only acceptable to the degree that it was more convenient for everyone than the alternative.

I had a vague concept that I could somehow earn the right to happiness if I did… something.  If I graduated, if I got a job, if I kept a certain amount of money in my account, if I had a relationship, if my body looked acceptable, if my grades were within certain parameters.  If I failed at those obvious, attainable tasks, how could I expect to earn something so nebulous as “happiness” or “value” or “worth?”  It couldn’t just come out of nowhere; I couldn’t just decide that I was enough.  But no matter how close I got to any of those things, no matter if I actually surpassed them, it wasn’t enough.  It proved nothing.  Nothing I could ever do would overcome the fact that it was me doing it.  Every single accomplishment I achieved inherently meant less – for me and for everyone around me – because I accomplished it.  Nothing I could do could bring me up; I could only drag things down to my level.  And so there was no way to get from where I was to where I thought I might sort of like to be, because no matter what I did, how hard I tried, or even if I succeeded, I’d still be me.

And now…

In the past week alone, I’ve had a meeting for the upcoming RPG for which I’m the editor, I’ve completed my first commissioned writing work, I’ve done my day job, I’ve cooked some dinners, coordinated an event, made its poster, filed my taxes, filled out loan repayment paperwork, spent time in person with my best friend, played a tabletop RPG, made plans to go visit another friend, DJ’d, gone shopping, and spent time with my significant otter.

Very few of these things were even conceivable fifteen years ago.  Or even ten.  Or five.

I interact with more people.  I’m more open to people.  I take more initiative.  I doubt less.  I worry less.  I panic less about making mistakes: I’ve made enough that haven’t ended the world, and I’ve even made some that led to positive things.  I’ve realized that no matter how much I plan or predict, I won’t get everything right: I’ll still mess things up, nothing will ever be absolutely perfect, and everything could always have been better.  But I’ve come to realize that, sometimes, something is better than nothing.  That it’s better to put something into the world, even if it’s not perfect, even if it could never be perfect, than to just sit on your hands and wish it were possible.

How did I get to the point where I was doing all these things?  Really, it’s because I started small.  Taking those tiny steps that seemed so completely insurmountable.  Knowing I wasn’t ready, and would NEVER feel ready, and just doing it anyway.  Deciding to be bold and dumb and stupid, to make ridiculous mistakes. If I started panicking and regretting everything and telling myself I Should Not Have Done This, This Was A Terrible Mistake, I made myself punch through it.  No ragequitting, no ha-ha-only-kidding, no sour grapes.  Just doing the thing, and if I didn’t like how well I did that thing, if I didn’t think I did a good enough job at that thing, if I was embarrassed to exist because of the thing, then I made myself do the thing again next time.  Either I’d improve, or the novelty would wear off, or it would become normalized, but either way, the panic would subside and I would be doing a thing I hadn’t done before.

As a dear friend once put to me, in his blunt but effective way, nobody really cares about these things but me.  That didn’t mean I shouldn’t care, or that my worry was invalid, or that my anxiety – by existing alone – had already made me fail.  And that didn’t mean that anything could take away the past: everything that happened, happened, and he held no expectation that I should change what I felt about it.   The only thing that could influence anything, from that point forward, was what I did next.  I could bail, hide my head, and resolve to never make the mistake of trying something new ever again.  And that would be fine.  Nobody would judge that. In all likelihood, nobody would even notice, and in time, nobody would even remember my attempt.  That’s the option that played to all my instincts.  But, as he said, in a way that somehow made it sound logical for the first time in my life, I could try again.  It wouldn’t take away what happened the first time.  But, assuming anyone noticed at all, they’d have noticed that I kept trying.

And I did.  And because I did, an unfathomable chain of events unfolded, over the course of years.  Uncountable small steps, some broader strides than others, some veering or stumbling.  But, in time… I’ve become who I am in the place that I am and in the condition that I’m in.

In short, I’ve slowly stepped out of the Spotlight Effect.  I’m not actually so magically horrible that average people notice or care. It doesn’t radiate off of me.  I don’t have a universal reputation as something worthless.  Nor am I somehow dutybound to express all misgivings about my worth, lest someone make the mistake of thinking I’m an okay thing.   At some point in the not-so-very-distant past, I came to realize that more people were neutral toward me than antagonistic, and that a surprising number of people were actually benevolent.  I still don’t really know that I deserve that degree of kindness, but it appears to be there whether I deserve it or not, because the kinds of people I’ve surrounded myself with are truly just that incredible.

I still worry that I’ve become selfish, of course.  Doing things, calling attention to myself, taking the initiative to make things happen just because I think that other people might like them.  Upsetting applecarts left, right, and centre.  But I’ve received so much positive feedback that it’s reinforced me to continue doing these things that I happen to like and want, and that other people happen to like and want even more.

And yet there’s an inherent hypocrisy to it.  I can’t believe that everyone who ever said anything awful to me was wrong, but everyone who ever says anything kind to me is correct.  Granted, there’s quite a gulf of years between the times of greatest awful and the times of greatest kind.   The criticisms of the past may feel like they hold true, but perhaps they don’t anymore.  The commendations of the present may ring hollow in the empty halls of that past, but perhaps they are relevant now.  This is the downside of isolation: you lack an outsider’s perspective on who you are and what you’re like.  Have I changed to become worthy of pleasant things somehow?  Was I always so? Am I actually mistaken and selfish, somehow blind to how terrible I am (despite how, by almost all objective metrics, I’ve undeniably worsened in every regard?)  Have I let myself be fooled by everyone else’s kindness, fooled into believing I’m a more worthwhile person than I actually am?  Am I just always going to feel worthless when I’m actually all right, and feel worthwhile when I’m actually a walking ruin?  Which is more ignoble?

I don’t think I have any answers.   But I think that’s okay.

All of that having been said, I’m still not sure there’s any one song that best describes me or my personality.  But this song resonates with me quite a lot lately, and once I actually took the time to look into the lyrics, I think it can be representative of this entire transition.

It sings of the constant clawing of regrets and the clangor of judgment. It sings of recognizing the depth of the dark and having no firm faith that anything will lead to light. Of questioning oneself constantly, forever beating a dead horse, never able to resolve anything.  Of a life confined and constrained, surrounded by dangers personal and impersonal and random, past and present and future.  But, above all else, it sings of an acceptance of that past, and even an acceptance of hope, and, with that acceptance, a shedding of old skins.  It sings of a life confined that moves forward not with great bravery, not with confidence, and not in pursuit of something sure and good and light – but, rather, by accepting that something awful could very well happen, that it could all be a terrible mistake, and Doing It Anyway.

The song that best describes the arc of my personality over the past few years is “Shake It Out” by Florence + The Machine.

 

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Day 18 – A Song By A Band/Artist You Wish To See Live

I’ve actually been struggling with this prompt.  Live music has never been a big priority in my life.  To be in the presence of the artist and hearing That Music played by Those Instruments held by Those Guys would be amazing, certainly.  But, with all those other people around – all the shouting and shoving and smoking – it becomes less appealing.  Though, then again, this prompt doesn’t say anything about a concert – just that I want to see them live.  So, why not assume ideal conditions – a private concert, just for me and select other awesomepersons – and go from there?

As for a living and, well, together artist… my first thoughts lean toward the mashup artists I like and share with others.  DJ Schmolli, Mashup-Germany, etc.  I have the occasional daydream of renting out a big warehouse, inviting all my far-flung friends, and getting one of those guys to DJ the event.  Although, given how many of my friends are musicians of some stripe anyway, just gathering them together would let me see a lot of artists I’d love to see live.

Of all the mashups I’ve ever played to those friends and others, I think the most consistently mindblowing one – and the one for which I’ve become most infamous – is probably DJ Schmolli’s “In The Mood For Some Killing.”  So, how ’bout that.

Hm.  Not exactly a deep and intriguing response so far. The prompt goes on to say that this band or artist can be “living, dead, together, broken-up, or fictional.”  So, why not one of each?

As for more conventional concerts or bands… would it undermine my credibility too much if I were to say Jimmy Buffett?  As the past entries have noted, that music was a big part of my childhood.  Sure, there are bands I enjoy more deeply, concerts that might be a more artistic experience.  I’ve heard that anyone who’s the least bit fond of Tool absolutely owes it to themselves to attend one of their shows, for example – and surely they’ll go on tour when they release that new album.  You know, the one that will seriously finally come out this year hopefully, right?  …Right?  Sigh.  Negativland just came out with a new album last year, as well, their first since 2008 – and I will forever kick myself for not having gone to see them perform when they were in town.  At, of all places, the Alamo Drafthouse.  So much kicking forever.

But, honestly.  I really don’t go to many concerts, and I really don’t expect that to change, so if somebody offered me tickets to any show I wanted… I’d probably have to go with the concert I’d been wanting to go to since I was in third grade.  Even if I don’t want to see him as badly now as I did then, the fact I’ve had at least some inclination for so dang long makes it a little more persuasive.  It’s compound interest, you could say.

I also feel I owe it to that younger self to see Paul McCartney or Ringo in concert someday – but I couldn’t give that as my answer for the living band or artist. Not when there’s a “dead” category.  I don’t care if it’s cliche, I’d love to see a Beatles concert.  Their music has wallpapered my childhood as well, though John was gone before I was even born.  So give me a time machine, give me some sort of wild gravitational lens. Let me peer through spacetime at the Cavern Club in February 1961.  Let me peek at the Prince of Wales Theatre in November 1964, and hear John ask the nobs to rattle their jewelry.  Hell, I’d even settle for watching the rooftop concert, knowing it was the end of it all.

Although, come to think of it… there must have been a first band.  Even if it was just a bunch of Neanderthals slapping their knees and singing.  Sometime in history, there was the first drumming, the first song, the first harmony.  Now that would be a dead band to see.  Not to mention the reactions of others.  Was there panic?  Confusion?  Did they get their heads caved in by rocks, the survivors ignoring it, maybe even forgetting about it for a few more generations, until people happened to do it again?  It would be beyond wonderful to hear the first “true” human (or hominid) song, for… whatever value of “true” that I don’t particularly feel like explicating right now.  Heh.

As for bands that have broken up… perhaps Pink Floyd.  They aren’t now anything like they’d been, and, again, I’m no die-hard fan.  But I’ve long wondered what it would be like to hear some of these things live and in ear-blistering Marshall-stack sound.  I honestly can’t think of any other defunct band I’d particularly like to see where most of the members are still… y’know, alive.

Fictional bands, though… good question.  I have a deep and poetic fondness for the reification of fictional things.  If just because it’s also a reminder that, no matter how real and famous and influential something cultural may be, it was fictional once.

It’s a bit of a tangent, but it’s a fascinating tangent: have you ever stepped back a moment and realized how all our cultural musical cues were, at some point, nonexistent?   The “du nuh… du nuh… dunuh dunuh dunuh” of Jaws, now a shorthand for suspense, once denoted nothing.  There was a time before the “dooDOOdoodoo” of The Twilight Zone’s theme became a wordless evocation of the eerie.  Elevators existed long before anyone wrote “The Girl From Ipanema!”   But now they’re in popular culture, propagating memetically even to people who’ve never seen the source.  I’ve absolutely gone “dunuh dunuh dunuh” while jokingly sneaking up on someone – but I’ve never seen Jaws nor even that full scene.  I bet there are kids now who use the Twilight Zone theme to code for spookiness, without even knowing what it’s from. What songs or themes will be hummed on schoolyards in a dozen years or so, and what meanings will they convey?

No matter how famous a song is, there was a time when it didn’t exist, and there was a time when it didn’t quite exist.  When the artist had something, and knew it was going to be a song, but just didn’t have it finished yet.  The meter wasn’t quite right yet, the lyrics not set.  It didn’t even exist as itself yet, much less as a meme.  For a time, then, you could say that finished song was fictional.

And then there are the songs inspired by dreams.  Like when Paul played the melody he’d heard in the night before’s dream, giving it the placeholder lyrics of “Scrambled Eggs” before, eventually, fleshing it out into “Yesterday.”  For weeks he played that melody to others in the industry, because he was sure he must have heard it before.  It didn’t feel like a thing constructed, but like a thing that simply existed already.

There’s a sense in which all art is about taking the fictional – the imagined world – and making it exist in some way. Transmitting a concept, emotion, etc. from one brain into another brain by manipulating elements of the physical world.  Which is absurd and wonderful.

So, out of all the fictional music, what would I most like to see or here in the real world?

I’m rather pleased that “Game of Thrones” is already giving sound to “The Rains of Castamere” and other such fictional songs. So that, delightfully, is rather less fictional than it used to be!

The first thing that comes to mind is just about anything performed by Kvothe from The Name of the Wind.  The fictions within fictions make that book, and that world, so wonderful.  Stories interwoven with other stories, references made to folk music and other languages and etymologies and, of course, the secret names of all things – names that bear actual power.  Far from being overcomplicated, it’s just so natural to read of characters referring to other characters, other stories, other songs, as they’re powerful parts of their culture.  It makes the world seem bigger, older, richer.  So I’d love to hear “The Lay of Sir Savien Traliard” in all its complexity and lamentation.  Or just to hear all the verses of “Tinker, Tanner,” including whatever ones Kvothe would be making up there and then.

Perhaps any of the bands from Terry Pratchett’s “Soul Music,” if just to make real another bit of the Discworld. (Though the Discworld Emporium does a painfully fantastic job of that in a non-musical way, as well, and if I had the disposable income, I’d surely buy at least one of everything.)  I’ve heard there’s a somewhat wince-inducing animated version, but I haven’t seen it yet, and can’t find any of the songs in isolation. So.

While I might once have been interested in hearing The Weird Sisters from Harry Potter… based on the film depiction in Goblet of Fire, their lyrics stink on ice.  You coulda done better than that, Jarvis; c’mon.  Those are lyrics for kindergarteners.

Still, I might rather see them than Dragon Sound.

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Day 17 – A Song By The First Band/Artist You Saw Live

Live music hasn’t really played a big role in my life, to be honest.  To this day, I’ve only been to three real concerts. Eh, maybe four, if you’re generous, but I’m not.  The only venue remotely close to me was still an hour’s drive away – with another hour spent fighting traffic and a third hour trying to park.  Besides, concerts were expensive.  Besides that, most of my favorite bands weren’t exactly touring, frequently due to the fact that their members tended to be slightly dead.  Still, I always wanted to go to a concert.  Based on my fondness for other sorts of live music – band concerts, local high school musicals, and all that sort of thing – I was sure it would be incomparably awesome to hear some real live music from a real band, so to speak.  To not just hear a song, but to be in the presence of that song, live and primal: your ear moved by the air that was moved by their instruments that were moved by their hands that were moved by the singular minds that brought that song into being.

One year, when I was perhaps sixteen or seventeen, I finally got my chance.

My dad’s workplace would sometimes sponsor employee outings of various types.  Some were specifically for the whole family – trips to the Children’s Museum, or discount tickets to the zoo.  But some were directed more at employees and their spouses, as in the case of the occasional concert trip.  Everyone would simply meet up at the workplace, hop on the coach bus, and let one poor sod do the driving.  They’d get out at the venue, some sort of food was provided, they’d listen to the concert, then everyone had half an hour to get back on the bus – where everyone would probably fall the hell asleep until the coach pulled back in to the workplace parking lot.  Less hassle, less stress, and less chance of getting rear-ended by some lunkhead on his 20th $10 beer.

If my dim memory serves, Mom and Dad were originally going to go to a Jimmy Buffett concert, but it was cancelled due to bad weather and rescheduled in some sort of way that wouldn’t let them honor the company’s original arrangement.  So the company got tickets for a different classic-rock concert instead:  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with Jackson Browne as the opening act.

My mom didn’t feel like going to that, and so my dad asked if I wanted to go instead, or else he’d sell the ticket to someone else at work who missed the cutoff.

I didn’t really know if I liked Tom Petty or Jackson Browne.  I’d have been hard pressed to name more than two songs from either of them.  But I knew I didn’t outright hate those songs I had heard, and that was more than enough to settle my mind:  I was going to go see my first concert.   Yes, I was going to be surrounded by Old People.  Yes, including my father.  Still: there’s a certain threshold of coolness, even within one’s own mind, that simply cannot be attained until one has been in the presence of live rock and roll.

And so the evening came.  Mom dropped me off at Dad’s work, I believe.  Then we loaded up on the coach bus, made our way slowly to the venue, and got deposited, shuffling through the huge throng of people to our little company-sponsored pavilion.  There was food, and there was beer for the old folks.  The atmosphere grew more… convivial, especially once we were out on the lawn.  By “convivial,” I also mean “hazy.”  I didn’t exactly have any context to know what pot smoke smelled like, but it was still smoke, and still unpleasant.  Worse by far were the fat cigars lit up by the people behind us – people who were also unfathomably loud.  My father asked if they’d be courteous enough to knock it off or move, but apparently concerts aren’t for watching performances, they’re for smoking and shouting at your friend about inane bullshit.  Why we didn’t move, I have no idea.  Because you’re not supposed to move once you pick a seat?  Maybe it looked more crowded and obnoxious further in?  Still, there we were stuck.

There’s a special kind of awkwardness about being sober around intoxicated people.  It’s an awkwardness that’s amplified when you’re still half a decade away from ever getting drunk yourself.  A sense that you’re more reasonable and grounded at the moment than someone thrice your age – but aware that you can still get in major trouble if you appear to inadequately respect your elders.  Still, I could tell that everyone was having a good time, if in a way that I couldn’t exactly match.  So my brain filed it away under “Huh, so this is that ‘fun’ I hear so much about,” and I focused on the show itself.

Jackson Browne put on a powerful performance. It came through louder and clearer than I’d ever heard from the radio; even that far afield, it was a force.  I recognized very few songs, but liked the ones I knew, I liked the ones I didn’t know, and I found myself almost forgetting there was more to come.  The sun began to set – what sun could be seen through the smoke clouds, anyway – and a Midwestern summer evening unfurled.

And then Tom Petty took the stage.

Allow me to take this time to reiterate that I tended to absorb my music piecemeal.  Not through concerts, not through albums.  Most of what I’d heard, up to that point in time, I’d generally heard on the radio, and gods only knew if or when the DJ would announce the songs or artists.  There was no Shazam.  There was no YouTube.  Google existed, but was still an up-and-comer, overshadowed by MSN and Yahoo!.  If I wanted to figure out who performed a song, the best I could do was remember some of the lyrics, do a search, hope to find a lyrics site that wasn’t festooned with malware and pop-ups, and read through the rest of the lyrics’ text in hopes that the rest of it sounded familiar.

This may help explain why I didn’t realize I was a Tom Petty fan until I was midway through a Tom Petty concert.

Song after song, it happened.  “Running Down A Dream” – “I didn’t know he did that one!”  “I Won’t Back Down” – “THAT’S Tom Petty, too?”  “I Need To Know” – “No  waaaay!”  I think I convinced my dad to let us creep closer to the stage – if just to get away from Smokestack McDouche.  Needless to say, the situation had not been improved by the playing of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Still, I was rather delighted.  “It’s Good To Be King” was playing.  I was grinning and humming along – not singing, though, certain as I was that singing during a concert must be some awful breach of etiquette.

But my dad was checking his watch.  He said it was around 10 o’clock, so the concert was probably almost over, so we should probably start heading for the bus.  I was dubious.  Nobody seemed to be on the move.  So I tried to tell him that we didn’t know for sure if the show was nearly over, that we’d have a full half hour after it actually did end, anyway, and that it really wasn’t that likely that the bus would leave without us.  Magnanimous, he conceded to one more song.

And so Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers struck up “Learning to Fly.”  It was softer, slower, smoother, starting with only Petty and his guitar, solo. Then the crowd began to join the song, word-perfect.   Everybody with a lighter – that being, practically everyone – held aloft a flame.  The flames shone up, and the stars shone down, and the stage lights shone all around. “And the town lit up, and the world got still.”  The Heartbreakers slowly joined in. The song rolled on, and at a silent gesture from Tom, the audience sang the chorus.  Soon he joined back in, backing up our own vocals, weaving more lyrics, unheard lyrics, between the ones we knew by heart.

In hindsight, I’m sure this is commonplace.  A thing that happens at every show, probably at every show of every band.  But I’d never experienced such a thing before – that many people, singing all at once, singing with the very artist who wrote the song, creating something so loud, so unified, and yet so ephemeral – a cover version that would never be heard again, not just like that, no matter how many times it happened in how many other towns.  It was a thing of beauty.

And, it seemed, that was a good enough note to go out on.  As the song ended, my dad began to make his way toward the exit.  I followed, grudgingly.  The crowd was dense and disinclined to let us pass, so I got to hear snatches of the next couple songs, looking ever over my shoulder so I could actually watch for as long as I could.

We got to the merch gauntlet that flanked the funnel to the gate.  I was allowed to look at things.  Dad said they were too expensive – and they certainly were – but he was already walking away before I could even ask about any of the cheaper things.  It was obvious we were leaving way too early: nobody else was up to the same beat-the-crowd tactic, nobody was in the bit of parking lot we could see beyond the gate.  I just hoped for something tangible to take with me.  But all of it was, apparently, imprudent.

The surliness on my face must have been obvious; he asked if I was mad at him or what.  Obviously, I wanted to say “Yes, Dad, I’m mad at you, because you’re making me miss the rest of the show for nothing, and you’re acting like it’s a practical decision, but everything about it is so plainly and objectively stupid.”  However, parents are programmed to dispense certain levels of anger, after all, no matter how much or how little trouble their kid is compared to any other one.  I think they just don’t believe they’re doing their job right unless they put the fear of god into their offspring every once in a while, whether or not it’s proportionate.  Kids I knew in school would talk of getting yelled at and punished for starting fights or cheating on tests or lying; I’d get yelled at and punished for accidentally getting my Frisbee stuck on the roof twice in a day.  And, since “talking back” was, to my father, defined as “Having any slightest twinge of dissatisfaction or uncertainty in one’s voice, even when acquiescing,”  saying anything remotely close to what I wanted to say would probably have resulted in all my personal possessions being either A) put up in the attic or B) outright sent to Goodwill.  So, attempting to navigate the minefield of expressing disappointment without acting spoiled or insouciant, I avoided saying anything about any sort of feeling, and just spoke in the sort of formulaic way I’d later use on bug reports:  “I had expected that we would get to see the whole concert.  Instead, we’re leaving early.” He retorted that he was just trying to beat the crowd, and was that such a problem?
By some miracle of persuasion, I convinced him to turn back  – for just one more song.  We got just far enough into the crowd again to see a sliver of stage.  I knew that was all I’d get, that he’d already given in twice, and would not brook a third.  I tried to make the best of it, though it was something from the new album that I don’t even remember anymore, and I was too annoyed and frustrated to enjoy it.  My Latin class had recently taught of Pyrrhic victories, and I wasn’t glad of the real-life example.

The song ended, and off my dad went toward the gate, me trudging behind. Still, there wasn’t a single other person trying to beat the rush – nobody was leaving but us.  The gate attendant quirked an eyebrow and asked if we realized we wouldn’t be able to get back in.  I remember looking up at my dad, wondering if this, and the completely-personless parking lot beyond, might be enough evidence that there was still a lot more show ahead.  But he was undaunted.

Unsurprisingly, another song did play as we made our solitary way through the parking lot toward the charter bus.  And another song struck up as we got near enough to see that the bus driver wasn’t even there yet.  I could see the back of the stage, hear the slightly-muffled music, the quieted crowd, see the aura of the stage lights, but nothing else.  Dad moved toward the bus, but I still trudged, and he asked if I wanted to just sit and listen, or what.  So I did.  I perched on an uncomfortable wooden post at the edge of the parking lot, and I listened to the next song that came on.

And the next.

And the next.

Finally, it sounded like it was over.  The crowd was cheering, the lights were flashing, and Dad was impatient.

Then the encore began.

“Free Falling,” one of my favorite songs since I was young, another that I hadn’t even realized was Tom Petty.  And then a cover of “Gloria.”  And finally, “American Girl.”  Only when “American Girl” was partway finished did a small number of people from our group make their way toward us.  And then it was over for real, some ten songs after he first wanted us to leave – some ten songs after it had begun.

I continued watching the back of the stage, resolutely not making eye contact with anyone.  Finally, Dad said one of the closest things to an apology I’d ever heard from him, before or since:  “I didn’t think it was that important,” said in a way that didn’t quite fail to imply that it was my fault, or my problem, for having decided to be invested in it.

And, honestly, it wasn’t even about how important it was to me.  It was the transparent ridiculousness of it all.  For someone so practical and pragmatic to waste money by watching only half the show, refuse to listen to reason or the evidence of his own eyes, then spend the rest of it standing around in a parking lot, THEN contextualize my frustration as a purely emotional matter…. it was mindblowing.  Still, it was one of the rare times that he’d acknowledge what was important to somebody else and act like it had any bearing on him.   It’s not like he was rude or mean or anything, per se – just that he knew what he cared about, he had practical reasons for why they were valuable to him, and he didn’t see the practicality – or therefore the value – of anyone else’s interests.  It wasn’t explicitly disparaging or undermining – just not exactly encouraging.

So people began to make their way to the bus in a slow but steady stream. The driver finally arrived, we piled in, and I flung myself into the window seat, flouncing as only a frustrated teenager could flounce – but grateful to sit on something more comfortable than a fencepost.  Dad took his seat beside me.  I still refused any eye contact with anyone, simply resting my head against the window and looking out at the parking lot.

The allotted half hour passed, which Dad had been so afraid to miss, and people still were filtering in.  But when the 40 minute mark came, the two seats in front of us were still empty.

People were encouraging the driver to go on without them – they should’ve known better!  They had a whole half-hour and then some!  The traffic was backing up!   The driver said he wouldn’t actually ditch them – not until it had been a whole hour, anyway.  So some empathetic souls said that somebody ought to go looking for them.  Others took up the cry, buttocks still firmly in seats.  Yes, indeed, Somebody should go looking for them.

And so Somebody did indeed go looking for them.

And that Somebody was my dad.

For all his concern about leaving superabundantly early, making sure we got to the bus on time, making sure we didn’t get left behind or hold anybody back, he was the one who risked getting left behind to go look for the drunken, dallying dipsticks.  Meanwhile, I stayed where I was – legs far too sore to walk around, anyway – and hoped that they’d get back in time, and further hoped that I would be insurance enough to keep the bus from leaving.  It may just be a hyperbolic memory that makes me remember the driver actually starting to pull out from the parking space before people called for him to wait just a few more minutes.

I really don’t know what I’d have done if he’d left, in all honesty: I couldn’t drive, so even when we got back to the workplace parking lot, I’d have been stranded there, unable to drive the car home.  Hell, I wouldn’t have been able to unlock the car, because Dad had the keys.  And he also had the family cell phone.  I’d have either been stuck sitting on the asphalt at midnight in a factory parking lot, or I’d have had to… what, exactly?  Find a pay phone to call home?  Hope that one of Dad’s coworkers would hang around with me until Dad showed up in a cab – which would have had to fight all the concert traffic both ways?  Nobody else from his work lived even remotely near us, either, so it’s not as if I could have hitched a ride.  If the bus left, I was, frankly, completely hosed.

Fortunately, probably an hour or so after the concert actually finished – almost two hours after we’d left it – Dad showed up with the yahoos in tow.  They seemed… slightly the worse for drink, as loud and boisterous as Dad was stoic.  Everyone took their seats, the driver probably said something snide, and we were off.

I know, really, that I’m lucky, all things considered.  To have a dad who’d take me anywhere at all, one who errs on the side of caution more often, instead of doing reckless things.  For that to have been the most substantive betrayal of my adolescent trust is… honestly coming out very far ahead, compared to many.  Still, it burned.  It was my first concert, and – so far as I knew – it would be my only concert.  It could have been a great way to have a good time together, but it just turned sour, and it never had to, and it wasn’t something that could just get a do-over.

But I do think he felt bad about it.  Because, some years later, there was another concert that I wanted to attend, wanted with an overwhelming abundance of want. For, on April Fool’s Day, a different local venue was going to play host to none other than… “Weird Al” Yankovic.  I was dead set on going.  And my dad paid for my tickets, to try to make amends.  It’s probably the last concert he’d have ever wanted to go to, personally – at least short of Jane Fonda singing an operatic arrangement of the Communist Manifesto.  But he knew it was something that was important to me, that it would be fun and probably make me happy – and, even if he couldn’t really share in that, this time he helped me get in the gate.

It worked out fantastically, because I got to spend my earmarked ticket money on a CD and t-shirt to tangibly commemorate one of the best evenings of entertainment of my entire life.  I had never been so impressed.  Not just with the music, either, though you could tell he was truly playing live.  There was even more to it all: AL-TV clips played on giant monitors.  Perfectly-timed lighting. Costume changes for virtually every song – even the fat suit!  It was beyond brilliant.   And when the cheering subsided and the chanting began and the tension rose to its height, and Al and the band came back onstage – in full brown-robed Jedi regalia – the crowd exploded.  They launched into The Saga Begins, and followed it up with Yoda – which, I’m fairly certain, was the first Weird Al song I ever heard.  (If just, most likely, through the oral folklore of the playground.)

Regardless, there was, again, that shining moment: when Al held his mic out to the crowd, encouraging us all to sing the chorus.  And lo, the demented congregation did sing out, such that it might shake the very foundations of the shrine.  Without compunction, I was belting along with the best and/or worst of them.  But as we sang, to my astonishment, Al and company performed something unheard on any album, a beautiful display of brilliantly bonkers bravura.  At last, it all came to a wild accordion-wailing apex, and the crowd cheered loud enough to be heard from space.   It was a smaller crowd, to be sure, but a happier crowd, a weirder crowd, a crowd that wasn’t shrouded in smoke or doused in drink, that probably didn’t need to be in order to get attuned to that strange communal frequency – and to raise it into a great reverberating peal of joy.

And, this time, I wasn’t being hurried along by anyone, following some disinterested other’s agenda. This time, I wasn’t there by default.  This time, I was seeing it through to the very end, though I was practically deafened and though I thought I’d grinned myself into permanent rictus.  And so I – so rarely social, so rarely seeming to mesh with people around me – got to share in a brief but vibrant experience, one that left me feeling the utter antithesis of how I felt that night some years before, sitting on the fencepost at the edge of a parking lot, away from everything and everyone.  But, in the end, I think it might not have felt quite so amazing to me if I hadn’t had the discomfort and bad-absurdity of that first concert to compare it to.

But that’s the way of weirdness, I suppose: the people who fall most in love with the satirical and the strange in the media are rarely the ones who feel comforted and empowered in life.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve only been to three concerts in my life.

Two have been Weird Al.

And, if I can somehow scrape together the money – impossible though it would be – I’ve all intentions of going for the trifecta later this year.

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Day 16 – A Song You Need To Listen To Again Right After It’s Finished

This is actually a rare phenomenon for me.  Once in a while, a song will resonate with a certain mood, or a certain event, or even a certain story, and I’ll want to replay it to continue setting the ambiance.  It happens most often while I’m writing.  For example, as I was nearing the end of “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” the song “Blue” from Cowboy Bebop got into my head and made a home.

It was thematic, and it was even evocative of part of the time period I was addressing.

I had a short story I was writing once – the sort of thing, as so many of my fitful attempts at fiction are, where I have a set of scenes in mind, or concepts, or an emotional ambiance, but not those tiny, fussy elements like plot and character development.  The closest to plot I came was another iteration of the Monomyth, which I’d freshly discovered.  Still, for an ostensible epic about a rural Midwest kid who comes to discover magical power and a hidden world, the jangling banjo and orchestral sweep of The Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorceror” hit the spot precisely, and I listened to it on repeat as I wrote.


Every once in a while, I will hear a song that strikes my fancy, and I keep wanting to listen to it.  Not necessarily right after it’s finished, mind you.  But maybe every day, or twice in a day. But it’s dangerous: I risk burning out on it.  It’s a little like cotton candy: small bites can be delicious, but if you eat too greedily, if you drool over it too much, that sweet and intricate structure just turns to a cloying, clumpy mass.

This is part of why I don’t often listen to some of my very favorite songs.  I don’t want to dissolve them.  I may never be able to recapture the sensation of hearing a certain song for the first time, but the less frequently I listen to it, the less I approach it, the more I let it find me, the better.  It’s also part of why I’m glad of things like Pandora: they broaden musical horizons with things you might actually like to hear, but preserve the element of surprise.  There’s a deep difference between putting on your favorite song and hearing it on the radio or on a stream.   It’s great to have control, to have the means of instant gratification, sure. But when that control is held just a little out of your hands, when you have to content yourself with what you get, you appreciate a mediocre song all the more – if just out of stubbornness.  And when you DO get what you want from something that’s out of your control…  it’s as if the skies have parted, the sun has emerged, and the great and acephalous system has cast a little ray of light right onto your face. Out of all the many things that could have been, it was a thing you like.  And if you hear two of your favorites in a row, or a whole block of winners before the commercial?  It’s inexplicably reaffirming!  No amount of listening to those songs by choice could match the delight of hearing them unexpectedly on the radio (or online radio analogue.)

What songs have I listened to the most, then?  Let us consult Winamp and its Most Played list. Even though it’s been through a few new computers now, and is therefore not a comprehensive list of how many times I’ve listened to things, it’s at least got a year behind it.  So, disregarding my usual DJing intro song (67 plays!) and things from holiday sets or other special occasions – all that listening and rearranging and relistening fudges the numbers hard – what have I most frequently played?

I’m not surprised that it’s a mashup, but I am a little surprised it’s one of my more recently acquired ones – and not by one of my favorite mashup artists, either!  Not to say I dislike this guy’s work by any means; his just isn’t one of the names that leaps more swiftly to mind.  But, regardless, my most-played not-a-special-set song is “Freefallin’ Explosions” by LeeDM101, a mashup of Ellie Goulding and Tom Petty.

What’s made me hammer it so hard?  I’m not even sure!  I’m not particularly familiar with Goulding’s work, so it wasn’t a surprising conjunction of two incredibly disparate things.  I’ve long liked “Free Falling,” though, so perhaps it was just the drama of the orchestral arrangement in the background that, heedless of its context, put that old familiar song in a newer, richer ambiance.

Still, I can’t say I ever felt compelled to listen to it twice in a row.  This prompt is difficult.

But I’m forgetting something.  In fact, I’m forgetting some of my very fondest songs – songs that were explicitly designed to be listened to over and over, on an unceasing loop.  Songs I could listen to for perhaps even hours at a time, and gladly, without wanting to punch the speakers into the Sun.

That’s right.  Video game songs.

With good video game music, it’s not just a sense of “needing to listen again right after it’s finished.” It’s more accurate to say that hearing the song finish at all seems alien and wrong.  I genuinely wonder how many times in my life I’ve heard some of these melodies, and how many more times I’ll hear them before I die or go deaf or whathaveyou.

But this won’t just be a list of my favorite pieces of video game music.  There’s many a video game song out there that I love, but have only rarely heard, after all – some from games I’ve never even played.  To fit the bill of this prompt, it’s got to be something I really have heard over and over again on loop – it’s got to be from something I’ve actually played.  This narrows the field significantly.  I’ve owned every other Nintendo console:  NES, no SNES.  N64, no Gamecube.  Wii, no Wii U.  Plus a Game Boy and a Game Boy Advance.  Friends, relatives, and roommates have had other consoles, though, but I played them more rarely, for less time at a stretch, and so I was always focused more on sheer gameplay. With my own games, on the other hand – or those I rented from the local video rental place (before it became the Blockbuster rental place, before it became a local athletic wear place) – I had no qualms about squandering my gaming time however I saw fit.  Suicide missions!  Playing with my eyes closed!  Trying to get the lowest possible score!  Ignoring the real narrative and goals and imagining other stories – like my survival narrative where Link slashed bushes for firewood, ate candle-roasted monster bait, and tried to recruit more of those money-gifting traitor Moblins to his cause.  But, yes, that squandering often included parking myself somewhere in the game and simply listening to the music while I did something else.  Which confused my mother to no end, of course: “If you’re not playing Nintendo, turn it off!”  But there were certainly some songs that I was particularly excited to listen to, and eager to give just one more repeat before I pressed Start or turned it off.

Many such songs were high score music or victory music. Something about it fascinated me: this was a song you could only hear if you performed a certain series of tasks with a certain degree of accuracy.  This was pre-Internet, after all: there were no soundtrack downloads, no Let’s Plays.  No feasible way – save maybe for an audio cassette recorder with the mic held up to the TV speaker – to hear any video game’s music outside of the game itself.  This wasn’t music that you could hear on demand; it wasn’t music that was dispensed seemingly at random by the vagaries of the radio station playlist.  It was music you had to earn.  Save for Game Genies and cheat codes, anyway.  I’m not ashamed to admit I often used hints culled from an outdated, battered copy of The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, borrowed from the library.  Matt’s reflections on it in this Dinosaur Dracula article reflect my own with surprising accuracy.  …Including the bit about never beating Super Mario Bros. I wasn’t driven to win for winning’s sake; I just wanted to see – and hear – everything.

So what were -and are – my favorite things to hear?

Sometimes, I’d just get in a Tetris mode.  I’d let it gather dust for months, play it again on a lark, and find myself hooked once again.  Hours would be spent before the little television, my features galvanized by that intense, semi-unblinking rictus of concentration known to the wise as Tetris Face.  And when I beat my high score?  Oh yes, the wood paneling of the family room would be echoing with this for as long as I could get away with it.


Though I had many of the staples of the NES, I also had a few obscurities that I loved as much as Mega Man or Mario.  (Maybe not Zelda, though.)  Prime among them was Pin-Bot, an NES port of a pinball machine by the same name.  Only with a a sort of level system that recolored the playfield and introduced clouds that could eat your ball, wasps that could steal it and take it away to one of the drains,  other wasps that bombed your flippers, and bonuses that turned your ball into a prism or a cube.   Through it all, some of the most amazingly strange music.

The intro theme – which, it seems, was an 8-bit version of the high score music on the actual pinball machine – always got a full listen:

But the NES game’s own high score music…

It’s the most ridiculously simple tune!  There are barely any chord changes!  And yet it was beyond endearing, somehow.  It looped like that forever: unlike the intro theme, there was no clear beginning or end, making it even harder to stop listening and play another game or – still harder – to turn the NES off.

But there did come a time when the NES was turned off for, it seemed, good and all.  It may have been after I got the N64; it may even have been before.  Regardless, there were many years when my gaming was relegated to the N64 alone.  As with the NES, though, I owned few games – but, by this time, that local rental place had become a big chain retail place, and so it carried a strong variety of games to rent. And – surprise of all surprises – they often had more than one copy of popular games!  I particularly loved renting San Francisco Rush for the N64.  I’m certain I could have bought the game twice over for all the rental prices – and overdue fees – I paid.  But it was everything I wanted in a racing game.  Shortcuts!  Ramps!  Off-roading!  Hidden secret keys! Cheat codes!  Explosions!  And if you got to a high score, you didn’t just get to put your name on the leaderboard.  You also got to hear one of the most exuberant bits of music ever.  I’d rarely listen to this less than twice.

THAT’S yo’ name!

Again, as with the NES, I did have the standards.  And I certainly did spend plenty of time idling around in Gerudo Valley for absolutely no reason but to take in the music.  …And because I loved diving into the canyon. The first time I’d done it, it was just on one of my typical Dumb Ways To Die adventures; I was certain it would be yet another stupid thing where, yes, there’s water down there, but you’re going to die halfway down for some arbitrary reason.  Imagine my thrill when I actually hit the water!  When I floated downstream, all the way to Lake Hylia!  And yet, even that delight was tempered, because I was always sad to stop listening to this song.

But there was another N64 game with a disproportionately excellent soundtrack.  One, like Pin-Bot, which nobody seemed to have heard of except for me.  The game was Tetrisphere, a sort of 3D Tetris (only not) where one tried to match one’s blocks to the blocks that comprised a freely-rotatable sphere below, generally to clear a certain number of blocks, or expose a certain amount of surface area of the core.  The entire soundtrack was excellent, but there was one song in particular that I adored: a song, appropriately enough, called “Extol.”

I was known to restart levels until I got this song as the background tune.  I don’t know when, or even how exactly, but at some point many years later, but before the dawn of YouTube, I managed to find the song in mp3 format, languishing on a personal website of… I actually want to say it was the composer.  And now I can listen to it on loop as long as I like – though, again, it’s more fun when I hear it randomly.

I got to play the actual Pin-Bot table only once or twice in my youth – and I sucked at it.  But there truly is something about pinball music that’s so distinct from any other game music.  I’m not versed enough in music or electronics to explain what it is, really.  It’s the way the music is layer upon layer of electronic horns and squeals, and the sound effects are so much more visceral somehow, being associated with so much… actual mechanical physics, I suppose.  The vocals – often from times when vocals were amazing in their own right – are so muffled and tinny, yet so charming, especially in contrast to the rest of the electronic bombast.  It’s no realistic-sounding orchestra, but it’s no Casio either.  It’s like a MIDI hopped up on Mountain Dew and Pixy Stix.

Of all the pinball games, the one that’s most dear to my heart may well be Black Knight 2000.  Whether I was playing it with my dad at the little game room in the inn at my favorite State Park, or whether I play it with The Boyfriend at the local arcade, it’s got so many fond associations.  And, even if it didn’t remind me of particular good times, it’s still incredibly badass.  The vocals!  The taunting!  The choir!  The bizarre shaking chunking madness at certain points!  It’s absurdly motivating.

But I think that the video game music I love and could listen to most of all – more than anything from my pre-college days, perhaps even on a par with the nostalgic songs from my childhood, possibly even rivaling some ‘normal’ music – is the music from the now-shuttered browser game, Glitch.

Glitch was the apex of whimsicality.  Not completely childish, anything but pointlessly edgy.  Even its Hell had charm.  Gitch was surreal, and inspiring, and sometimes melancholy, and the music made it even moreso.  I can’t explain it, really, but from the first time I heard some of the songs, they felt familiar.  It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but it somehow bore nostalgia from the start – as if it already knew it was going to be gone someday.  I couldn’t put my finger on it at all, on what I could have possibly heard before that would have made Glitch’s music feel once-known, once-loved, and forgotten.

The whole experience – both of the familiar music and of Glitch itself – reminded me of a rare species of dream I have.

In them, my dreamself goes to a place that my waking, thinking mind – which is always along for the ride – knows I’ve never been to before.  Maybe it’s a shop, modeled only vaguely after one I’ve actually seen.  Maybe it’s some theater’s backstage, only tangentially like any I’ve worked in.  But, in these dreams, my waking-self knows I’ve never been there, and my dreamself doesn’t believe it’s ever been there, and is only ambling around, lost at worst, a tourist at best. But the people there know me.  They’ve heard of me.  And they stand a little more straight, smile a little more sly, and say they always knew I’d be back.  I apologize for the confusion and say there must be some mistake, I’m new here, I’m just visiting, but they – or someone they take me to see – just says they knew I would say that, too.  And then they give me something they say I’d left there once before: a wallet I’d lost, or a notebook, or some similar personal effect.  Awkward now, I try to hand it back, but they’ll hear nothing of it.  Open it, they say, it’s been ages!  Not sure whether I’m humoring them or myself, I do – and it all comes washing over me.  Memories of a whole life I’d lived once and forgotten.  Things made, friends met, conversations held.  Helping and being helped.  A whole sphere of my life that I cared about, deeply – but, somehow, forgot.  It’s overwhelming, and it’s undeniable, and even my attendant waking-self is thoroughly impressed and weirded out by how my brain is generating all of this. When I manage to reach my words again, I apologize, saying I have no idea how I could have forgotten for so long, or why it took me so long to come back, and I swear I didn’t mean to abandon anyone or worry anyone for all these many years. But I’m assured that all is well – that it’s just the way of this place.  People come and go, remember and forget, and nobody even pretends to understand it all, so neither do they judge.  But, someday, even without their willing it, even without remembering, everyone finds their way back.  It may not always be to stay – and there I hold up my shaking hand and say no, I wouldn’t let it happen again, I couldn’t possibly forget again – but they just shake their head, smile, and say again no, it may not always be to stay, but everyone does find their way back.

Glitch itself is trying to come back – in Children of Ur and in Eleven – both of which are patterning themselves closely on the original, reviving that world once loved and shared and lost.   It’s been long enough now, and some people likely found Glitch so late and got to play so little, that someone will have that sort of experience.  They’ll stumble on this browser game, decide to give it a try, and find themselves in a place they didn’t know they knew, a place they didn’t remember they’d forgotten.

Ultimately, the biggest reason why I don’t listen to some of my favorite songs, though I very well could listen to them on loop… is because I want to preserve them as time-capsules.  I want to take them in, let them surround me as I am in a place at a time, then forget them.  And, when I hear that song again, some years in the future, unlock that capsule and be able to feel, if just for that moment, that immersive, suffusing sense of place and time once more.   Something so acute, so overwhelming, that couldn’t have been called up from memory without that key – that song (or, often, that smell.)   Yes, that does a disservice to the song: it puts aside its meaning as a song itself, renders it secondary to what it makes me feel and think and remember.  But, what can I say.  Sometimes, I appreciate a song for what it means on its own.  Sometimes I appreciate it for my personal interpretations.  And sometimes, selfishly, I appreciate it for how it reminds me of myself.

 

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